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Last week, retail’s most prominent players merged at the National Retail Federation’s “NRF Big Show” in New York City. Over 33,000 delegates came together with top influencers from around the globe including Walgreens Boots, Macy’s, American Express and even retired US General Colin Powell. There were over 600 retail industry solution providers debating, discussing and demonstrating the next big trends in retail.

Just as Kip Tindell, the NRF Chairman of The Board predicted; The energy, enthusiasm and passion all came together for the Big Show 2016 and it was truly very special to be able to attend on behalf of Salesforce UK alongside retailers like John Lewis, JC Penny and TOMS and many more to celebrate their successes, to talk about their challenges and to work together to build a successful retail future.

At the forefront of retail technology 

Technology was of course at the centre of everything, from the more established tenets of Cloud and Mobile which were being talked about by almost every vendor to a brand new Launch Pad area at the Big Show showcasing retail technology startups and small, young companies that are about to make a big impact on the industry.

The Big Show was also the place to find out all about the most innovative products that will help to create inspiring retail environments of the future. There was a 3D printer which was producing a rather fetching jumper and of course there were wearables galore including notification bracelets, even robotics that help new parents install baby seats. One highlight of the tech this year for me though was meeting Pepper, the first humanoid robot that reads human emotions and can speak in multiple languages as well as through the iPad like tablet stuck to his/her chest.

Away from the products, it was great to hear retired US General Colin Powell focusing on themes of valuing others, inspiring trust and security and respect of staff – themes which transfer easily to the retail industry. He described his own approach by saying “If you trust your people, you empower them. Then they will believe in you and the power of your organisation”, something retailers can apply to staff and customers alike.

Top 3 learnings from NRF 2016

But how are the developments that we saw at this year’s NRF Big Show going to change retail? Here are my top 3 learnings from NRF 2016: 

1. Empowerment is the New Success

Meeting your customers where they are, at the speed they desire, and providing them with the power they need is the new success. It’s a cultural shift in retail that is here to stay, as Marks & Spencer CMO Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne explained, “the result of technology enablement is a paradigm shift rather than a fad.”

The advantage of empowering your customers, is of course, the organic knowledge that comes from them. Utilise your shopper’s desire, feedback and behavior to improve your business and the way that you build a relationship with them. Mike McNamara, CIO at Target added, “How do I get more out of what my customers know, instead of chucking more at them?”. 

Empowerment of staff will also improve success. Sales and other in-store staff are one of the most important pieces of the in store experience jigsaw. Many retailers are beginning to empower their sales staff with mobile devices to go beyond just offering PoS or a product catalogue. Using technology to push customer focused marketing or service tasks to in-store staff and to share customer insight or next best actions is a great way to delight the customer whilst giving the in-store sales staff the right real time insight and information for them to make the right decisions.

2. Hyper-Personalisation: Shoppers want to be recognised across channels and touch points

The days of “omnichannel” and “ERP” talk are gone in the customer dynamic. The customer wants to choose how they interact with your brand and it’s all about a connected, hyper-personalised relationship. The MyBuys/eTailing Group 2015 Personalisation Survey found that 53% of customers say it’s important that retailers recognise them as the same person on all channels and devices to deliver a consistent and personalised experience. Retailers need to know their customers both inside and outside of the store and to be consistent whilst speaking in the shopper’s individual language. It isn’t good enough to just be personal, retailers must be embracing data-driven relevance and real-time insights to deliver the right interaction opportunity at the right time thus creating a unique personal journey that is tailored to and in context with the customer. Sir Charlie Mayfield of John Lewis asked the big question: “Do you talk channel, or customer?”

Virtual reality goggles were also a big hit. Personalised, innovative, and cutting edge, these devices give consumers an emotional and interactive ride. The TOMS pop up store had a great demo of the use of virtual reality to show the innovative business model and unique approach behind the brand. In the UK many of us have seen the marketing power of the PepsiMax Unbelievable Bus Shelter augmented reality campaign. At the TOMS store it’s much more personal, virtual reality is used to enhance the in store experience and at the NRF Big Show 2016 other brands talked about using the capability to build “endless category” shopping, personalised product preference engines or “Try before you buy” apps. Something tells me they are going to be big in 2016.  

Just about everyone at NRF was talking about personalised consumer centric experiences and retail can’t afford to miss the opportunity, personalisation is expected in 2016.

3. Digital is only the beginning

The old way of looking at things is as separate channels but customers see retail brands as one entity. Online, In-Store and Call Centre are all the same to the customer and everything needs to be connected. It isn’t about digital stores replacing physical stores; what we’re seeing now is a blend of both with the customer at the heart of everything.

By enhancing the in-store experience by accessing stock across all channels or allowing shared cross channel shopping baskets or wish lists or using personalised customer insight to predict recommendations or next best actions for a particular person in a particular location; Retailers can blend the digital and physical to extend and reinforce their brand and customer relationship.

During a session discussing Digital Transformation with Macy’s Chairman and CEO Terry K. Lundgren, Kenneth Chenault the Chairman and CEO of The American Express Company explained that he wasn’t worried about the traditional plastic Amex card losing out to mobile payment apps as long as the American Express brand is lodged within the those apps to deliver unique payments, rewards and service capabilities which reinforce the brand. Digital doesn’t mean the plastic will go away but will extend the choice of the consumer. What will be important for an accelerated adoption of mobile pay, is the value to the customer which reinforces the loyalty connection.

Together with digital solutions, social media gives retailers of any size and budget access to millions of people. But if you want to compete, it’s not enough to just be online and social, you must enable yourself to predict and tailor your customer experiences flexibly. Behavioral data whenever and wherever you need it, can help you innovate faster and meet your customers where they are. Use social media to personalise the whole customer experience. Get customers involved and build a relationship with the brand.

What next?

One other technology trend that came up a lot was, of course, the Internet of Things (IoT), At the show it was being referenced everywhere from connected devices in the store to predict footfall, ibeacons and RFID tags to connect stock and fulfilment technologies and to gain insight about shopper behavior. I do sense there will be far-reaching implications for retailers in the future. In fact, my hot tip for next year's event is that NRF 2017 will be the year of IoT. I hope to see you there! 

In the meantime, you can read more about the key technology shifts that are disrupting the retail industry, and see how you can take advantage of them to build stronger connections with your cusotmers in this 4 ways retail can reimagine business e-book.