Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, opened the 2017 Retail Big Show in January by talking about something that would emerge as a theme throughout the event. That is, despite enormous advances in technology in the retail industry, in the end it’s a business about people – communicating, engaging, working with and relating to people – in stores and online.

What that in mind, we produced a six-page report detailing specific action items retailers and brands can take to ensure they are putting people first.

Re-evaluate your teams and how you acquire talent
Profound changes in the way consumers buy from and communicate with retailers and brands are forcing them to re-evaluate their workforces, including the skills required to truly become customer-centric.

At headquarters that means, among other things, leveraging data science to interpret and make use of the mountains of customer data they collect. It also means that organizations must rethink their operational and organizational models to compete, differentiate and grow profitably.

A key opportunity for retailers this year, according to Ian Jindal, founder and editor in chief of InternetRetailing, is “Staff, staff and staff. Recruiting, training, supporting and training front-of-house ambassadors is a major challenge for retailers, and yet if they succeed and create an appropriate culture then it’ll make the business more resilient, more profitable and more distinctive. Staff are the one resource that can be a sustainable differentiator.”

Articulate Your Brand Purpose
When so much of retail is commoditized and homogenized, how do brands stand out? Retailers and brands should establish a brand purpose that helps them establish an emotional connection to their shoppers.

Leading retailers and brands are not merely in the business of selling merchandise, but are becoming stewards of their customers’ lifestyle. It’s not nearly enough to have great products, service, competitive prices, a unified multi-channel presence and great technology.

Ryan Watchorn, chief marketing and strategy officer at the outdoor brand Cabela’s, said his company’s success has been driven not by selling stuff, but by its purpose to “strengthen the bond between customers and the outdoors.”

Martin Newman, executive chairman of Practicology, noted that even Amazon is trying to make this emotional connection, with its Christmas television ads featuring a Priest and Imam getting together for tea.

Articulating your brand purpose also means communicating your shared values, which can drive business in a big way.

Reinvent your stores
The vast majority of global retail sales still take place in brick and mortar stores, but shoppers still need a reason to go out of their way to walk in your door. Retailers must offer something of value that is different and better than what they get online.

Indeed, making stores relevant with real-time technology, compelling in-store experiences and well-trained and motivated associates was a key theme of the Big Show. According to Deloitte Digital, fewer than half of consumers it surveyed were happy with their in-store shopping experience, presenting a huge opportunity for the majority of brands.

But even that is not enough. Retailers must bring their stores into the 21st century by implementing technology that unifies the shopper experience and eliminates the pain points of brick and mortar shopping.

“Most retailers don’t know how to leverage digital in a commercial context in their stores,” says Newman of Practicology. “They have to break down barriers to eliminate the two biggest friction points in the store – the changing room and the cash wrap.”

At the Big Show, fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff discussed her company’s store innovations, which include smart fitting rooms that empower shoppers to do self-checkout, save items, and communicate with the sales associate without leaving the room.

“Smart fitting rooms mean never having to put your pants on to talk to an associate,” said Minkoff.

Personalize Everything
It was a key theme of the NRF Big Show – retailers and brands need to create one-to-one interactions and experiences for their shoppers. Why? Consumers demand it, and it will be a prime differentiator for those that lead in this area. From startups like Shoes of Prey and Indochino (completely customized shoes and apparel) to more established brands like GameStop and Vitamin Shoppe (personalized engagement with shoppers), personalization and relevance rules the day.

“Big data, cloud and algorithms have gotten together and had a baby called Machine Learning,” said Jindal. “This is a promising area to reduce drudgery and increase suggestion and expert support. In fact, it’s my top tip for retailers to make real progress over the next 18 months.”

The idea of personalized product offers and recommendations is not necessarily new. What is new is the notion of personalized pricing, an idea floated by Nikki Baird, managing partner at Retail Systems Research. She notes that, because they cannot win on price, retailers should personalize prices for individual customers based in part on their purchase history.

“It’s the only way to wean customers off promotions,” she said. “You’re still giving new shoppers a promotion but not giving away margin to customers who would have bought anyway.”

Improve Inventory Accuracy
“As a retailer and as an industry, lack of shelf-level in stocks is an Achilles heel for us,” said Levi’s EVP Carrie Ask. “It happens all the time. Shoppers can’t find an item in a store even though the system says it’s there. It’s a top barrier to purchase.”

Accurate inventory an age-old problem for retail, and has been made exponentially more complex by multichannel commerce. Stores largely don’t know what they have in stock or what other stores have in stock, and the real-time nature of modern commerce means that inventory levels are in a constant state of flux.

That’s why retailers should make real time inventory visibility a priority this year. How? By implementing a cloud-based unified commerce platform that offers a single view of the customer, store operations and inventory.

As part of the Salesforce Customer Success Platform, Commerce Cloud empowers companies to deliver a consistent brand experience throughout the customer lifecycle. By leveraging sales, service, marketing, communities, analytics, IoT and platform solutions, brands and retailers can ensure every engagement, no matter the channel or device, is completely unified.