The past, present and future of retail – a few takeaways from NRF 2018

I’m no stranger to retail; it’s what has fueled my career. I’ve personally experienced the tumultuous times of retail, much of which was reflected in sessions at NRF 2018.

Retail fuels consumers and creates jobs. NRF statistic: Retail has created 1.3 million new American jobs since the end of the Great Recession in 2009 – more than double the manufacturing sector’s growth.

SRAi NRF TeamOne of my first jobs in retail was supporting a new channel back in the early ‘90s – home video delivery. Though innovative, it lacked customer connection and preceded the boost that the internet would bring to this industry. Next, I found my (lucky self) on the island of Oahu, working at Liberty House, a great department store that was eventually acquired by Macy’s in 2001. So many people I knew back then got their working start at Liberty House. Eventually, I made the shift to software, but kept my connection to the retail world through supporting a large variety of retailers and watching them succeed. But, of course, it was always sad to see some fail, which leads me to this year’s NRF.

Themes from NRF 2018

The themes this year were similar to last year at NRF. Consumer experiences (delighting and entertaining), building brands and differentiation are key for retailers to thrive. Many of the sessions I attended looked back in history and, of course, tried to predict what will happens next.

Like 2017, Amazon is still the buzz. Last year, Amazon examples were repeatedly brought up, recalling when Amazon Go was all the buzz and the predictions around what this e-commerce retailer would do, particularly around introducing some new technology. Who knew they would shake up the retail world without technology but with an acquisition. 2017 will always be remembered as the tumultuous year this #1 e-retailer would enter grocery and collide with Whole Foods, rocking the supply chain retail industry.

At NRF, there was also a lot of talk about how the retail outlook is much better. Yes, stores are closing but others are opening and channels are growing and blending. These are exciting times for retailers, as mentioned in this Kiplinger article A Good Holiday Season In-store and Out, Holiday sales surged 5.9% in 2017, the best season since 2005 and in-store sales are predicted to do alright this year with 2.4% increase.

Stellar customer experience is still King

A big point from the conference this year is that offering experiences and connecting with the consumer is more important than the next innovative technology. That said, it is clear though that the next generation of tools is needed to create those experiences, as well as to compete and to survive in this environment. This was very evident from the customers we talked to at the Symphony RetailAI booth at NRF.

Customers are looking to replace legacy solutions that fall short and are disappointed with failing or slower than expected implementations. We heard several comments from our customers on their excitement around CINDE, our newly released digital assistant, which is filling a critical gap by providing very detailed insights and suggesting next actions for FMCG practitioners. We also had a lot of conversations around integrating disparate desktop systems and excitement for fulfilling the next-gen promise of end-to-end processes within firms.

It’s clear that customers are looking for reliable partner organizations that can help them address all the issues throughout their organizations that lead to one end – giving customers what they want and doing it in a way that excites and keeps them coming back.

As I reflect on how retailers struggle with serving the customer through the blending of the physical and digital channels, an interesting statistic comes to mind from NRF: 9 out of the top 10 e-commerce retailers are also brick and mortar retailers. So, it’s clear that the concern about the vanishing physical store may be rather exaggerated. It was also clear to me in my conversations with customers at NRF that retailers are excited to make the right moves to support their future. And I left the conference with a feeling of a bright future, one mixed with meeting the challenges of the ever-evolving customer landscape and the almost daily disrupters that arise, and one mixed with palpable excitement.

Retailers must not be afraid to reinvent

I’m not alone in feeling that the retail industry is at a turning point and that it’s time for new approaches. Ones that enable retailers to be more dynamic and adaptable so they can understand all the customer touchpoints and customer data and use it throughout the organization. Customer behavior and trends are in constant flux, and we must arm ourselves with useful data that can help understand and even predict what might come next. Of course, this can only happen if organizations adopt a fearless attitude of embracing change.

Related reading:

Data, artificial intelligence, the food chain and supply chain

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