5 Digital Takeaways from Retail’s BIG Show (+ 3 from the after-parties)

Originally published by the National Retail Federation on Medium on 2/1/16.

In January, the retail world converged on Manhattan for Retail’s BIG Show. And big, it was. Whether your feet are still sore from pacing the Javits Convention Center or your head continues to spin from following the #nrf16tweets from afar, the National Retail Federation assembled more enriching content than any one person could consume. I did my best to keep track of the biggest themes related to digital — which is nearly everything today — and share them here. If you think I missed one takeaway or overstated another, I’d love to hear from you.

1. Numbers are everywhere (more on that in items 2, 3 & 4 below) but the focus is on more than metrics. From influencer marketing maintaining a human element to organizations being designed thoughtfully, concern for the experience was a common thread across panels. It also was a top message in keynotes by execs from companies including Under Armour, Nike andHershey. (That said, I was happy to learn a vending machine allowing users to make Hershey’s Kisses with customized messages indeed drives sales — great idea!) Brands and retailers are responding to the way Millennials and the much-discussed Gen Z value experiences and connection over product. But the pendulum may swing back toward intense measurability, as I anticipate some impatience as we wait for social media to translate to social buying.

2. Rather than just saying big data is important, our industry is talking more specifically about how to use it. As one speaker said, only 30 percent of the challenge is getting the data. A plethora of EXPO exhibitors want to help, bringing the digital into the physical in some ways. As the NRF’s own Eric Olson said, and I paraphrase, consumers now expect the best of an online experience to be provided in-store.

3. E-commerce has trained us to seek a depth of insight. Now we want those analytics in our stores, too. This is another example of bringing the digital into the physical, in ways that can be behind-the-scenes or customer-facing. Sunglass Hut shared what their store analytics and testing look like. Linking in-store technology back to e-commerce sales will be the next step as I foresee it. All of this is driving an investment in technology on the front and back ends and everywhere in between.

4. We (and a preponderance of exhibitors at the EXPO) want to track everything, especially our inventory and our customers.

5. Most importantly, there are no channels anymore and, ideally, no choices among means of shopping. You haven’t read “mobile” yet because it was as woven into the NRF agenda as was “digital” or “e-commerce.” At Disney, the marketing organization is now one again. It’s all commerce and it’s all about the customer. Possibly no one was clearer about that than John Lewis.

There was also frequent mention among speakers and audience members about products and features in development. These include personalization, convenience, buy buttons, artificial intelligence and frictionless payment. On the cusp but less-discussed were beacons and voice recognition technology.

Even beyond the speaker sessions and EXPO floor (“floors”plural, to be accurate — wow, was that big), the week was filled with hallway chats, roundtables, coffee meetings and evening events. That’s all part of the beauty of NRF. Below are some of the most frequent topics of less formal conversation. Again, please let me know what you heard.

1. Any sense of permanence in organizational structure is illusionary.Everyone realizes our companies need to be fluid. But we should be clear when hiring people that their reporting structures and jobs, if they still exist, may look materially different in the near future. When unfavorable changes happen, we should admit it and make it comfortable for people to leave. When a company’s leadership isn’t certain about its medium-term — let alone long-term — needs, it should consider hiring contractors while figuring it out.

2. Level of investment in “digital” varies and is subject to change. I heard a frustration that companies say they want to be innovative or invest in e-commerce and then don’t put the dollars — or even the consistent lip service — behind those initiatives after hiring leaders to run them. I’ve certainly observed this myself. In discussing what organizations need to do to respond to the consumer demand for a digitally-driven experience, the Digital Prophets Network panel made a number of suggestions I liked:

  • Broader initiatives have to be cross-functional to ensure an organization works together. I’ve preached it before but “they want” and “you guys” should be penalty-inducing language.
  • Executives (entire teams, I think) need to understand how a customer journeys through an organization’s lifecycle, both as the customer experiences it and as it touches each part of the organization.
  • Employees in digital-specific or store-specific roles should physically visit each other and see — participate in, in my experience — operations firsthand.

3. Amazon is the professional enemy … that we personally love. We all live on Amazon Prime. But, concurrently, we’re thinking about how to compete with it. An attractively curated online experience is one way. Three others I like are:

  • Free two-day shipping and free returns, offered by ShopRunner to its member customers across its vast network of retailers. As the average smartphone user succumbs to shopping app fatigue, I can envision Amazon and ShopRunner being the last two standing.
  • Buy online and pick-up/return in store, which we know customers want (see the links earlier in this sentence) yet can’t get with Amazon. Happy Returns, a new logistics company, is addressing the returns piece by letting the online customers of its network of retailers return to any of the retail stores in that network. Bonus? Returns are cost-effectively consolidated and redistributed on the back-end. Double-bonus? Much-needed store foot traffic.
  • Extended aisle — but without excess retail inventory or a painful technical integration. Drop-ship — sometimes known as vendor direct — solutions of the past have required retailers and brands to speak to each other on a common platform. Now, RevCascade offers a hook-up that enables any brand to drop-ship to any retailer without the setup costs of money or time. I only wish this existed when I was at my last four companies.

In The Next Battlefront for Online Dominance, we heard about companies trying to excel at discovery, conversion, fulfillment and satisfaction. I’d argue the companies above are addressing all four. That’s lucky for the retailers working with them; as the session concluded, “Amazon is not going to kill physical retail, it’s going to kill mediocre retail.”