Highlights from NRF 2020 - The future of retail is insight

  • Article
  • Alexander Niléhn
  • February 4, 2020

The world's most trendsetting retail expo; NRF Vision 2020 took place in NY on January 11-14th. On January 27th BBH Stockholm and Publicis Sapient arranged a seminar on the topic of NRF 2020 Vision - retail's big show, hosted by Apple.‍

Highlights from NRF 2020 - The future of retail is insight

The world's most trendsetting retail expo; NRF Vision 2020 took place in NY on January 11-14th. On January 27th BBH Stockholm and Publicis Sapient arranged a seminar on the topic of NRF 2020 Vision - retail's big show, hosted by Apple.

During the event we tried to condense not only 3 days, 400 speakers and 800 exhibitors but also the all-important discussions that happened outside the expo halls. We invited a handful of retail experts to discuss the most valuable and inspiring topics and drew some conclusions on the future of retail which you could read more about below.

As the new decade kicked off with NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show, one thing is clear: retail and tech companies are rallying around values and people to inform experience with data as the connective tissue to spur profitable growth. This past August the Business Roundtable stated the purpose of a corporation is to “promote an economy that serves all Americans,” adding “each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.” The statement was signed by 181 chief executive officers (CEOs) including Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, as well as CEOs from other retailers such as The Home Depot, Macy’s, Best Buy, Target, Walgreens and Walmart.

This sentiment was echoed throughout NRF during the week of Jan. 13 in New York City. With customer experience as their priority and data as the enabler of that experience, established retailers that are accountable to all of their stakeholders stand a much better chance of returning to profitability and growth than those who remain focused solely on conversions. Hilding Anderson, senior director of strategy for retail North America at Publicis Sapient says, “as we design new experiences, we use a concept that John Maeda, our chief experience officer, calls dataful. This means that the experience is informed by what we know about the customer and their context. This expertise in data and AI is emerging as one of the key differentiators for retailers.”

Here’s what stood out at NRF 2020 Vision:

1. People are the priority

NRF gave a voice to big-box brands as well as smaller start-ups and direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands. While the challenges they face can be different, the brands that are seen as the most innovative and successful in the face of today’s environment all spoke to the importance of fostering a culture of common values internally and reflecting that belief system externally in an authentic way. Heidi Isern, senior director of product management and customer experience innovation at Gap Inc. has taken a holistic approach, saying the company is “making sure that whatever we’re doing is impacting everyone in a positive way.”

Kevin Johnson, CEO at Starbucks, is investing in a “human-first digital strategy” where “one of the common themes going forward is finding ways to create human connection. Human interaction. The world needs that.” To achieve this, forward-thinking retailers are soliciting customer feedback, prioritizing community management and investing in people development. Anderson says, “retailers should have the necessary information at hand to create an experience driven by the rich knowledge of the relationship between the brand and their customer. They should know the customer, and tailor the experience to match.”

2. Diversity and inclusion

The diversity and inclusion movement is picking up steam as consumers look to align their values with those of the brands they support. Alex Waldman, co-founder and chief creative officer of Universal Standard and Micky Onvural, CEO of Bonobos, spoke about creating and building a brand that is inclusive of all consumers. Universal Standard touts the most dress sizes of any clothing company in the world--from 00 to 40 all at the same quality and price. Waldman aims to render the plus-size category obsolete, saying “success is when we don’t have to have this conversation.” Onvural added on, saying “the goal is to live in a world in which you don’t have to identify as anything” in terms of size, gender or otherwise.

Female executives are also leading the charge within their organizations. While progress remains slow in terms of increasing the number of women in leadership roles, commitment to do more is evident. Rent the Runway’s chief people officer, Tammy Sheffer, says she believes people development is imperative. “Historically, men get sponsorship and women get mentorship, and that is very different for our careers. The more as women we can sponsor other women to lift them up and encourage men in leadership to do the same, that’s where I believe you can change those dynamics.”

3. Sustainability and accountability

Consumer anxieties around climate change continue to grow. Sustainability and accountability are no longer optional for retailers as “consumers want to vote with their dollars,” according to Lush Cosmetics manager of ethical buying, Heather Deeth. Going one step further, Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin, co-founder and chief digital brand officer of Summersalt, says “companies that don’t become more sustainable, they’re going to have to move for the new wave of brands that are.”

While some companies have built sustainability into the company’s core, those that haven’t can start small. “Not everything happens at once. You can evolve and learn and figure out what’s material to your business and develop it from there,” according to Jennifer Gootman, vice president of social innovation and corporate social responsibility at West Elm.

4. Brick and mortar is back

Surprise! There are two factors driving the renewed investment in brick and mortar stores: the need for a physical, human connection (integrated with digital) coupled with the reality that ecommerce isn’t profitable for most retailers in this Amazon world. Even the most successful digitally native DTC brands are opening stores, or rather, in-person experiences like Glossier, Casper, Away and StockX. According to Tracy Sun, co-founder and senior vice president of new markets at Poshmark, “regardless of commerce, a physical connection is like gold.”

The concept behind these new brick and mortar stores is rooted in providing an experience rather than facilitating a transaction, often taking the form of brand partnerships, social media integration, blending digital with the physical and generally providing a space where shoppers are encouraged to explore and stay a while. Store associates are armed with product and customer data to personalize every interaction. Matt Alexander, Neighborhood Goods co-founder and CEO, said it’s the in-person experience that gets him excited, “seeing people come into the room and just be excited for reasons so far beyond just coming in to shop. For us, it’s about maintaining a very human approach. We’re never going to be the shiniest object in the room – we’re trying to be the most honest and the most human.”

As consumer expectations continue to evolve, retailers must foster a values-based culture of innovation and constantly improve the space they own in digital and in-store environments. They can achieve this by infusing data capabilities into every part of the business to cut across organizational silos and put humans at the center of their business.

Seize the space in Retail

Successful retailers must evolve the space they own in digital and in-store environments to exceed their customers' expectations. Retailers who embrace progressive, agile and cost-effective ways to deliver against the increasingly sophisticated needs and wants will dominate carts and minds. This is true in the US and it's true in the Nordics.

The text has been compiled by Magda Stefanski, industry country marketing lead at Publicis Sapient, Alexander Niléhn, growth lead at BBH and Franciska Unger, nordic marketing and communication lead at Publicis Sapient.