James Curleigh, CEO of giant apparel retailer Levi Strauss and Co., had some familiar and some foreboding words for the 35,000 attendees at the annual NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show last week in New York City.
“The times, they are a-changin,” Curleigh said, quoting Bob Dylan’s classic tune during his opening keynote, “You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone.”
Presenters at NRF, where attendees joined 18,000 retailers and more than 600 exhibitors to discuss the biggest trends and technologies rocking the retail industry, echoed Curleigh’s message for retailers throughout the three-day event: In order to survive the industry’s massive digital disruption, retailers must embrace technology—both online and offline—to meet the demands of today’s shoppers.
Here are three key takeaways from this year’s event:
Brick-and-mortar is evolving, not disappearing
Despite an unprecedented number of retail store closings in 2017, retailers with physical stores are remaining resilient, viewing the digital shift as an opportunity to evolve and adapt, not disappear.
Traditional chain retailers like Neiman Marcus are rejecting the notion of a “retail apocalypse” by embracing omnichannel strategies that blend the physical and digital shopping journey.
“We went all in on the idea that our customers don’t think about Neiman Marcus online or Neiman Marcus stores, they just think about Neiman Marcus,” said Scott Emmons, head of Neiman Marcus' Innovation Lab.
From optimizing their back-end systems to gain one complete view of their product, to building out ecommerce capabilities that translate into better in-store experiences, Emmons says Neiman Marcus is focused on using technology to create seamless customer experiences, anywhere their customers shop.
While traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are growing their digital strategies, digitally-native companies like Outdoor Voices are realizing the value of expanding into physical retail, too.
Outdoor Voices CEO Tyler Haney explained how her brand uses its physical stores to drive digital and social engagement—from hosting events that encourage shoppers to use the stores as meetup spaces, to decorating fitting rooms with mirrors that prompt shoppers to take and share selfies.
The convergence of digital and physical retail is real, and companies that allow customers to interact on their own terms, on multiple touchpoints throughout their buying journey, will survive the shift.
Focus on customers, not channels
The fragmented retail landscape causes many retailers to focus on optimizing channels to meet customer expectations. But presenters at Retail’s Big Show insisted there is now only one channel that retailers should focus on — the customer.
“Modern retail is about putting the customer at the center of everything you do,” said Zendesk COO Tom Keiser.
And while meeting customer expectations can be difficult in an age of rapid technological innovation, technology can also be the solution to better understanding your customers.
“Customers don’t think of channels, they think of needs,” said Elpida Ormanidou, VP of Advanced Analytics and Testing for Chicos FAS. Ormanidou urged retailers to take advantage of the power of data and omnichannel analytics to better understand customer needs, before shoppers even step foot in their store.
And once shoppers do enter a store, tools like smart assistant technology arm sales associates with all the information they need to provide personalized, seamless experiences, no matter where customers choose to interact.
The need for retailers to deliver a seamless customer experience demands not only better customer-facing technology—but it also demands the supply chain capabilities to deliver on the promises of unified commerce.
NetSuite customer Rally House shared how it invested in inventory management to provide customer satisfaction at every step of the supply chain process. In less than four months, Rally House transitioned from one centralized warehouse to 61 store warehouses, increasing product turnaround time with direct-to-store delivery and improving real-time visibility.
Retail technology runs the show
From visual search to augmented reality and the Internet of Things (IoT), technology wasn’t the side show this year at NRF, it was the main show. Artificial intelligence (AI) was a particularly popular topic among speakers and exhibitors. Results from a Twitter poll that we ran during the show showed similar interest in the technology:
Janie Yu, Partner at Fung Capital, joined a panel of venture capitalists to discuss industry trends and store technologies. While Yu acknowledged the importance of AI for the future of retail, she says it’s still maturing.
“As an industry, we need to develop more specific use cases for AI that can actually make a dent in retail,” said Yu. From intelligent product forecasting to driving more personalized customer experiences, Yu believes AI will serve many needs in the future, but encourages retailers today to focus on technology that solves current problems.
“If you want to do retail well, get the customer experience right and get the products right,” said Yu. “Find how you can use technology and data intelligence to plan the product mix you’re offering customers, allocate down to the store level, and replenish at the right frequency.”