The human and the machine
Like every January, NRF’s retail “Big Show” brought tens of thousands of industry members together to set the tone for the rest of the year. Being at the start of a year and decade seemed to add more significance to this year’s edition.
While the 175+ sessions covered every aspect of retail, one thing is clear: From here on out, retailers will be focusing on humanity and technological innovation in equal measure, all in the name of getting closer to customers. And instead of existing in opposition, they’ll be mutually beneficial.
Data-forward retailers are leading the pack when it comes to experience
Retailers were told that they needed data, and wow, did they listen.
While retailers vary in their ability to put it into action, data-forward leaders know what’s up. Drawing insight from data is the only way to achieve the personalization and convenience necessary for the highest level of customer experience.
Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, summarized it nicely, “Data is only useful if you, in real time or near real time, can predict something better, can automate something better, you can gain an insight…that’s the true measure of your success with data”.
Case in point: In a session on winning the “experience economy”, Jennifer Hyman, Rent the Runway Co-Founder and CEO, said that data painted a picture of customers so exact that they could proactively offer specific styles to them as well as ease pickup and return.
Thanks to data insights, Rent the Runway is able to “work with customers 100 days a year” and compete with its biggest competitor, “the closet you already have”.
The outcome of AI is more human contact, not less
The fact that AI was mentioned in almost every single session we attended pretty much says it all. But instead of dreamy visions of an AI future, this year’s speakers hammered in the point that it’s already happening.
While applications are far and wide, noteworthy mentions are those which in AI is allowing retailers to humanize the retail and brand experience.
Case in point: In his keynote session, Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson described the brand’s “human-first digital strategy” including “Deep Brew” AI initiatives: Tech that lets stores automate processes like inventory and staffing calculations to convert saved time into better interactions with customers. Starbucks also hopes NLP will allow them to take orders sans devices to increase human interactions like eye contact.
Johnson says Starbucks wants to counter human disconnection created by technological connection by creating “third places” for human contact. This aligns with the brand’s long-standing mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”
Retailers are putting their store associates on a pedestal, finally
In connection with the previous point, Target’s VP of Talent Acquisition, Damu McCoy said, “Retail is the biggest team sport out there.” No one knows this better than store associates.
As physical stores take on an essential role in the human channel of retail, their superheroes are their people on the floor. Speakers emphasized listening to employees with great attention and empowering them with tools.
Satya Nadella said, “Putting the right insights, data in their hands, empowering them is going to make a difference,” continuing that, “it’s perhaps the highest ROI thing you could do because you increase the conversion rate by 15% and you improve the satisfaction by 10%.”
Case in point: Alexa Geovanos, Brand President North and South America for Chloé said the luxury brand currently uses an omnichannel app that allows in-store stylists to assist customers digitally, ultimately driving customers into stores, minimizing returns, and inspiring future purchases.
It’s time to hold up a mirror to company culture: Innovation, diversity, and sustainability
The term “legacy” in retail implies outdatedness as opposed to historical wisdom. In addition to replacing legacy tech, retailers are rushing to refresh long-standing company cultures, often the breeding ground of resistance to innovation, diversification, and an overall inability to “get with the times”.
A culture of innovation doesn’t always appear out of thin air
Kevin Johnson aims to turn ideas into action at Starbucks within 100 days, which “can’t be done in a culture of fear of failure and avoiding risk”. This culture of innovation from the top is key to transformation, but not all retail leaders have 32 years of tech experience like Johnson. Many simply don’t understand innovation projects, making it hard to get them funded. The solution is education.
Case in point: Becky Gebhardt, EVP and CMO of Popsockets, spoke of her time at Land’s End. Educational “innovation days” helped (mostly older) executives at the brand to better understand digital technologies and in turn, invest in tech like AI, and data science and analytics teams. The success of this initiative led to an innovation lab and a culture of eagerness to adopt advanced technology.
Representation matters in retail leadership
Between call-out culture and the #metoo movement, retailers, especially in fashion, are being pushed to enact social change. Major topics at NRF this year were related to diversity and a fair and accurate representation of society within organizations.
Case in point: The consensus was that many companies are making strides in promoting inclusivity, but there are many opportunities to improve. In order to bring underrepresented groups into leadership positions, Tammy Sheffer, Rent the Runway Chief People Officer, spoke of sponsoring rather than mentoring women and people of color to spark actual change.
Damu McCoy said that if retail organizations feel they don’t have a large talent pool of underrepresented groups to choose from, they should “invest in the communities you want to see thrive.”
Retailers can’t afford to be tone deaf when it comes to the environment
Case in point: Retailers at NRF went far and wide to reveal their environmentally ethical practices, whether they be fair trade agreements, the promotion of local economies through long-term sourcing, or avoiding efficiencies in their supply chain with AI.
According to Heather Deeth, Manager of Ethical Buying for Lush North America, the brand has always been committed to environmentally responsible practices, but are only talking about it now as it’s become a cross-generational concern. While Millennials have been more vocal about it, she sees a shift happening in the attitudes of older shoppers too. “We didn’t know then what we know now,” she said.
The team was thrilled to participate in NRF this year! If you didn’t get a chance to meet us in New York, contact us to find out how Nextail can transform your business, giving your employees more time to carry out the human channel of retail.