3 themes to take from Retail’s Big Show into 2019

Once again, this year’s NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show event held by the National Retail Federation brought tens-of-thousands of retailers and industry stakeholders to New York City to talk about what’s happening in retail and what’s next. From keynote addresses, to educational sessions, to the EXPO floor, here are three important takeaways from this year’s show that are sure to come up again and again in the retail industry in the coming year:

Tech innovation, but with a purpose

As always, retail tech innovation was on display in full force at Retail’s Big Show. But this year, the focus was a bit more practical than in years past. Rather than showing off retail tech because it’s new and cool, retailers and solution providers showed off technology that helps retailers do their business better and tools that improve the customer experience.

Representatives from Lucky Brand talked about how advanced analytics have helped the retailer optimize planning and buying, allocation, mark-downs and fulfillment, while boutique retailer Francesca’s has utilized data to make its marketing more authentic and create a single view of its customer. European convenience store chain Rossmann demonstrated how it has used artificial intelligence-based video analytics to shorten lines in its stores, and The Home Depot and its tech partner Tableau discussed how the retailer uses machine learning to better work with vendors.

Walmart’s Chief Technology Officer Jeremy King talked about the retailer’s efforts to use technology to remove customer pain points and smooth out the shopping journey. And he said the company also uses virtual reality in its employee training and robotics to help get products onto shelves more quickly. But at Walmart, the company’s scale is always considered when King and his team assess new tech tools because the tools have to be useful across its thousands of stores, he said.

Retail still needs a human touch

While the proliferation of technology in consumers’ lives and the shopping journey was apparent across the show’s sessions and EXPO floor, another common theme that weaved throughout the show was the significance of human interactions in retail environments.

Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly discussed the importance of fostering a hands-on workforce and focusing on customer service to keep shoppers happy and coming back for more. Executives from Samsung and The Home Depot talked about the importance of combining tech and the human touch in the form of the “connected associate” who fulfills the demands of today’s digital consumers while also facilitating meaningful interactions and fostering loyalty. The importance of a human element in retail even made an appearance at the NRF Foundation’s Student Program, where Hallmark’s Lindsey Roy talked about how human connections help retailers innovate and give their brands life in the eyes of their customers.

The customer -- at the center of it all

And at the center of where technology and human touch meet is the customer -- the true driver of the retail industry -- which was illustrated throughout Retail’s Big Show.

Executives from Kohl’s, Chico’s and rue21 talked about how customer-centricity will truly go mainstream in 2019 and that a focus on the customer must be the basis for merchandising strategies. Representatives from ciValue and Nielsen discussed thinking like a “selfless retailer” to draw customer loyalty, which entails listening to and learning from customers, sharing and integrating data with an eye on collaboration and giving customers a selection of products they actually want to buy.

Putting retail’s digital transformation to work for the customer has been a priority at Express, where shoppers have gotten a taste of next-generation of buy-online-pickup-in-store services. At Retail’s Big Show, Vice President of Digital Experiences Jude Reter talked about the retailer’s trial of pickup lockers, which let BOPIS customers skip lines and go straight to their orders. Express found that stores that tested the lockers saw a higher experience satisfaction rate than stores without the lockers, a higher average order volume and a higher instance of BOPIS customers making additional purchases, Reter said.

What will happen next?

As always, every discussion at Retail’s Big Show was forward-facing, giving retailers information and insights to take back to their teams and use moving into 2019 and beyond. Moving forward, retailers will be sure to see a renewed focus on the physical store and an evolution of technology that will move beyond flashy, consumer-facing tools and into more behind-the-scenes operations. Shoppers will continue to see even more friction points removed from buying experiences, and rather than focus on data collection, retailers will focus more on data utilization.