Review: NRF's Big Show 2018

Tom Custer, vice president, FRCH Design Worldwide, shares his top five topics and insights from NRF's 2018 Big Show.

The National Retail Federation’s Big Show 2018 had more than 36,000 attendees from 90 countries, and although the trade show (EXPO) showcased many new high-tech products, I thought I’d highlight five broader topics from attending various conference sessions, the Innovation Lab, as well as some of the industry’s leading product and service providers.

1. Stories of Transformation
It was great to hear James Curleigh, president of Levi’s, as a keynote speaker to kick-off the Big Show. James highlighted the great heritage and equities of the Levi’s brand (fascinating journey throughout the decades), but his story was all about transformation. He shared how Levi’s not only leverages that heritage and equities, but also is continuously evolving to strengthen the brand and grow the business. He shared the critical need to create a culture and a mindset of being open to change - always learning, experimenting, evolving and creating moments into momentum to build for the future. This was one of many stories of transformation I heard at the Big Show. 

2. Innovation: What does that really mean? 
Innovation has become such a buzzword, but these are some of the attributes that make it real (for me) and a way retailers could think about innovation from an activation perspective (to make it real for them).

It’s hard to change a culture of a large organisation, but the creation of a small team and/or space to implement new ideas is key to evolve, test and learn. My biggest personal learning and something I’m looking forward to sharing with our team at FRCH surrounds the following:

  • A start-up speed mentality: Ideas can get lost in bureaucratic channels and processes that are hard to shake off. That big idea that was relevant at the time isn’t relevant by the time all of the internal buy in gives their blessing. We live in a fast paced world that relies on brand expression, so work to animate your equity fast and furious to make a real dent in the marketplace.
  • Flexibility (test, take risks, fail, don’t be perfect): Consumers, or guests, desire authenticity and this means unbuttoning your top button. Take your self seriously, but leave some wiggle room to explore freely.
  • New innovations in supply chain: Retail experiences are more than ever tied to product availability and operational support and fit. Brands are using technology integration to meld a better customer experience with operational support and capacity.
  • Entrepreneurial spirit and mindset: Think of your brand when it began in its infancy – it was exciting, risk taking, and organic. Employ some agile thinking when implementing new initiatives and embracing outlier ideas.

At the Big Show, it was great to hear how large organisations like WalMart has created Store #8, which is WalMart’s innovation incubator named after the founder’s original ’test lab’ store, and once start-ups like STORY are leading the way for other retailers to learn how to innovate.

Image courtesy of AFrame Photography
3. Personalisation & Customisation
MJD Interactive, a digital innovation agency, and FRCH presented ‘One Size Does Not Fit All’ at the Innovation Lab stage, which focused on the meaning behind brand purpose. One key element of our internal ideology relates to the value of personalisation and customisation.

Retailers need to create products and services that appeal to the ever-changing consumer and their demand for personalisation. American Girl’s new flagship retail experience at Rockefeller Plaza is an example of this. Customers can personalise a doll with features that make it most meaningful to them, as well as the experience overall as part of their visit to that store. Other examples include the digital app developed for Stride Rite for kids and their parents, and the S’more experience at Hershey's World Time Square.

Although, not every interaction needs to be a transaction. Retailers who create experiences that bring value and create an emotional connection will also drive loyalty. Experiences related to a faster checkout, such as facial recognition/cashier-less checkout brings great value (time) to customers. So digital experiences do not need to be just display screens in the store, they should engage and inspire the human spirit.

4. It’s Not Omnichannel, It’s Seamless Experience
I really like how NRF organised the Retail 2020 Innovation Lab space to align with the customer journey. Innovative providers showcased their products and services to align with different stages of the journey – awareness, consideration, engagement, service and post purchase.

It’s clear that customers are in control, meaning they consider and engage when and where they want. Brands that deliver a seamless retail experience transcending single channels to encompass the integration of ecommerce, in-store, and mobile will be the brands that will become relevant and meaningful to customers. It’s not about just connecting ecommerce to in-store. There are multiple channels available to consumers, so it’s enabling them to shop when and where they want to shop and make that experience seamless. Many technology innovations showcased in the Lab are making this possible today.

5. Stores of the Future
The physical store is not going away but it is changing, and it was great to hear some facts that reinforce this. According to IHL Data, there were 14,000 new stores that opened in 2017 and 10,000 store closures. That’s a positive net of 4,000 new stores this past year. We always hear about the brands that are closing and many of them are larger anchor stores, yet many smaller stores opened in 2017.

Which brings me to the point that stores of the future will be: smaller in format, curated, convenient and community based. Ecommerce will continue to grow, but the next level of disruption will be evolving technology innovation such as augmented reality and virtual reality platforms where consumers can ‘shop the store’, which will blur channel lines even further.

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