3 takeaways from NRF Big Show: A human touch, sustainability and the changing role of tech

The National Retail Federation brought about 40,000 retailers and other industry members to New York City again this year for NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show. Throughout the three-day event, three major themes emerged from the keynote addresses, educational sessions and Expo floor:

A focus on people

The human element of retail and a focus on how associates and other staffers can help retailers do better business was a theme that came up at several sessions at Retail’s Big Show.

As president and CEO of Sam’s Club, Walmart US President and CEO John Furner shifted the way the retailer approached its workforce, simplifying products to give associates more time to empower them to serve customers better.

“I think our role, leading big organizations, is to make sure our teams have the resources, the clarity and really a whole system and process around them to make the environment work, so they can feel successful,” he told attendees during a keynote session.

Through the effort, Sam’s Club has raised wages, implemented a shadowing program to identify areas of improvement and added technology that has freed up more associates to be out on the floor. And the effort has paid off -- Furner reported a boost in retention rates, customer satisfaction and the retailer’s bottom line.

At L’Oreal, the company has incorporated the human element of retail into emerging digital tools with its new brand Color&Co. General Manager Olivier Blayac walked attendees through the digital brand’s business model, which allows shoppers to interact directly with licensed colorists on their computers or mobile devices via video conferencing in order to choose the right hair color, which is then delivered to them.

“[Customers] feel that they are a part of making their own formula and they have a much higher level of satisfaction,” Blayac said.

On the Expo floor, many tech vendors and retailers talked about the changing role of the associate -- especially when it comes to enhancing their roles with digital tools. Google Cloud presented on how it partners with Kohl’s on AI-based chat functions that allow for more interactions with customers, and many other exhibitors talked about the importance of human workers in relation to cashierless store technology, mobile checkout and in-store fulfillment of online orders.

The growing importance of sustainability and conscious consumers

As Melanie Frank, senior marketing advisor for Acceo Solutions told attendees: “Sustainability is not another trend or a fad -- it’s here to stay.”

This message resonated throughout the entire show. Sarah Veit Wallis, vice president and general manager of e-commerce at Athleta, talked about her company’s sustainability efforts, which have worked their way through the entire organization, from being more thoughtful about printing things on paper, to switching from staples to reusable clips to attach order pages to click-and-collect purchases at stores, to swapping out traditional mannequins for recycled, recyclable, light-weight ones.

At H&M, clothing production is moving away from a linear model to a circular model, US Sustainability Manager Abigail Kammerzell told attendees. The retailer believes that in order to lead change for a sustainable future, it is necessary to effect change across the entire supply chain and industry as a whole.

“It’s going to change our entire business,” Kammerzell said.

She and Veit Wallis were in agreement that while sustainability is growing in importance among consumers, at the end of the day it is not the main driver of purchasing. Customers still want a great product at a good price, first and foremost.

While retailers talked a lot about sustainability in general, they also talked about how the lens of sustainability is widening to include other aspects of their businesses to meet the demands of conscious consumers. For instance, retailers talked about the role of strategies related to responsible work policies right alongside the role of sustainability strategies. At West Elm, sustainability efforts include fair trade and responsible sourcing, as well as a commitment to worker wellbeing made in 2018, Jennifer Gootman, vice president of social innovation at West Elm and vice president of corporate social responsibility at Williams-Sonoma, told attendees at the show.

Cosmetics retailer Lush owns its own retail stores, manufactures products in Canada and has farms where the company grows materials for its products, Heather Deeth, Lush Cosmetics North America’s manager of ethical buying, said. Lush works hard to maintain transparency within its supply chain by building long-term business partnerships and sourcing directly from the origin as often as possible.

“We’re lucky at Lush because the message about sustainability and really doing the right thing comes from the top,” Deeth said.

For those retailers looking to strengthen their sustainability efforts, she recommended looking first at the aspects of your business that you can control, incorporating sustainability into the ongoing innovation of your products, telling the sustainable stories about your products and your business to empower customers who want to make more responsible purchases and readying yourself for surprises along the way.

Meeting the changing needs of shoppers with the next iteration of retail tech

As always, retail technology played a big part at Retail’s Big Show. But while in years past flashy tech tools took center stage, this year the focus on technology was much more practical and centered around how retailers can incorporate technology right now to better serve today’s shoppers.

Fashion brand rag & bone, for example, has added conversational commerce tools into the role of the store associate, allowing shoppers to have a truly channel-agnostic buying experience. The retailer wanted to solve the problem of online shoppers not having the same level of confidence to buy as those in stores, and wanted to make connecting with store associates via digital channels as easy as direct messaging or FaceTiming a friend. That’s where conversational commerce came in.

The main goal for rag & bone was to combine the best of offline shopping and bring it to online shopping, and vice versa, because that is how people shop, Vice President of Digital Aaron Detrick said. By incorporating a conversational commerce app into the purchase journey, store associates can respond to digital shoppers in real time and offer services like styling advice by sending pictures or information about products in their store locations.

“Our principal focus is on providing our product and our people to our customers whenever they want it, however they want it,” rag & bone’s Senior Vice President of Direct to Consumer Ben Harris said.

For Hakan Nordkvist, head of sustainability innovation at IKEA Group, technology is key to preparing for shoppers today and in the future, but only if it goes hand-in-hand with people.

“The starting point for us is people,” he told attendees.

Cool technology is great, but retailers have to factor in the impact that technology has on people and society as a whole in order to truly meet the evolving needs of shoppers, Nordkvist said. To get ahead and prepare for the shopper of the future, IKEA Group worked with Singularity University to develop distinct stories of people in the year 2030 and what life will be like 10 years from now. Reacting to things happening today is still vital, but the retailer is also working on meeting the needs of that society of the future, Nordkvist said.

“The impact and the people are the most important things. Technology is the enabling thing,” he said.