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It’s bitterly cold in New York, but attendees of the annual NRF Big Show were warm to the ideas and innovations presented on the first day of the 35,000-strong gathering of global retailers.

Here are some key takeaways from day one.

Brands matter!
Have low prices, free shipping and homogenous products come to define retail forever? Several large brands here say absolutely not, that in fact one’s brand (and the power of their message and the emotional connection they make with shoppers) is the fulcrum of retail – the key to differentiation and competition.

Case in point, Levi’s, the 150-year old iconic maker of the very first blue jeans. Its president James Curleigh, who rode a bike through the crowd to the main keynote stage, is well aware that there is not anything particularly unique about denim. That’s why there are hundreds of denim brands.

To differentiate itself in the market that it created, Levi’s focuses on its mission (innovation), values (sustainability, transparency, community and worker well-being) and giving its “fans” a reason to keep loving them. One example, how to keep its iconic Levi 501 jeans and trucker jackets as relevant to today’s consumers as they were when they were introduced in 1890 and 1967, respectively.

Levi’s partnered with celebs including Chance the Rapper, Karlie Kloss, Justin Timberlake, Solange, Snoop Dog and others to design their own version of the trucker jacket in 2017 in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Indeed, that sense of nostalgia is a big part of the allure of Levi’s. Who hasn’t owned at least one pair?

South Korean singer CL summed it up in this 2017 article from the Hollywood Reporter: “I still wear the same Levi’s jeans I had from when I was 15. It’s a forever thing. And if you find your fit, they are something you can wear anywhere, on a date or to the park. Levi’s is classic. Original.”

Another hallmark of great brands is that they resonate emotionally with their customers, and they deliver innovative capabilities attuned to their customers’ needs.

There are many places to buy Adidas footwear, for example, but the brand site alone lets shoppers customize its products. It has leveraged technology from a startup called FindMine to create curated outfits for online shoppers, created a sneaker reservation app to alleviate long lines upon release of sought-after new sneakers, and developed a chatbot for more efficient customer service.

“The purpose is to create a competitive advantage,” says Gordon Lanpher, Senior Director of Digital Innovation at Adidas. “We are not going to out-Amazon Amazon with their $4 billion in R&D but with a focus on our brand and our customers, we can deliver something new and innovative.

Startups drive innovation, rack up sales
On the first day of the event, sessions were peppered with intriguing startups driving the evolution of retail. Here’s a few of the most interesting retail tech companies:

Findmine, which was cited by Roots and Adidas during their joint session, was founded in 2015 and uses artificial intelligence to automatically “complete the look” for shoppers, mapping a retailers’ catalog of products and inventory to curate a complete ensemble. Adidas’ Lanpher says the technology has contributed to an increase in revenue per visitor.

Optoro, a reverse logistics platform, helps retailers process, manage, disposition and sell their returned and otherwise unwanted and unsold inventory. The company, backed in part by Steve Case’s Revolution Growth who joined him on stage, counts Home Depot and Best Buy among its clients.

“What happens after the sale will be much more important over the next ten year,” said Case.

And here’s two startup brands that have already garnered more than $100 million in revenue:

Boxed, an online-only site for bulk purchasing of branded and private label items. Boxed, founded in late 2013, fills a need for consumers who desire bulk warehouse prices but don’t live near a warehouse club. And by selling direct to consumers Boxed is part of major push among retailers to own the customer experience. The company has grown so fast it has reportedly attracted interest from one large grocery chain.

Bark is growing furiously by capitalizing on a few trends: the steady increase in US spending on pets (about $63 billion in 2016), and subscription services. The company, founded in 2012, has already shipped more than 50 million of its curated BarkBox boxes to pet owners.

Beauty Pie is a beauty brand founded in 2016 by repeat entrepreneur Marcia Kilgore. It is similar to Everlane in its focus on complete price transparency. The company charges customers a membership fee, and beauty-lovers choose their own luxury products at a fraction of retail cost. “We’re overpaying for beauty products,” says Kilgore. “Transparency is the new black.”

Stay tuned to this space for more NRF trends, and don’t forget to stop by the Salesforce booth (#4103) for awesome demos and delicious hand-dipped Godiva treats! And on Tuesday, January 16, join Salesforce for a Big Idea session featuring SVP of Retail Shelley Bransten and Design Within Reach, which will examine the role of AI in retail.