With some serious challenges facing UK retail in 2017, there was always going to be some interesting conversations at The National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York last week.

The introduction of the National Living Wage, combined with the decreasing value of the pound, means that retailers are being forced to think about how to innovate and revitalise their markets, whilst being ever more careful with investment.  

The show consisted of 33,000 attendees and over 500 retail exhibitors hosting hundreds of sessions, and showcasing miles of retail technology in keynotes, breakout sessions and innovation labs. Now the dust has settled and the conversations have been had, I wanted to look back at the common themes running through the event, and how they impact us here in the UK. 

1. In-store customer experience

Today, it’s not enough for physical stores to have great products, service, competitive prices and great technology. The ability to simply order online from the sofa means that the in-store experience is more important than ever.

When you consider that 57% of Millennials are happy to share data with retailers if it means a better service in-store, retailers have to ensure that when a customer walks into a store, the experience is worthwhile for both parties. 

There were many technologies on show that give that wow factor to the shopping experience - such as virtual reality and digital signage. But technology can’t just be used for technology’s sake, it should be transforming the experience from a transaction to a meaningful relationship. 

The key to these technologies being used successfully, and on an equal footing with e-commerce, is the way the retailer utilises the customer insight they have gathered. 

We heard from Aldo CMO Erwin Hinteregger about how Aldo infuses intelligence into every facet of business operations to deliver a meaningful connected, 1:1 customer experience in-store as well as online. We also saw how Vineyard Vines use technology to reshape their in-store shopper experience.

2. Smart is the new Sexy

Customers are getting used to having smart, conversational technologies in their lives. From Siri and Amazon product recommendations to Facebook feeds, content is being curated and delivered based on individual preferences and context. 

The same customers also expect the data that retailers hold about them to be used for their benefit. Our Connected Shopper Report found 74% of shoppers like receiving personalised offers and promotions based on their purchasing history.

Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO kicked off his keynote by summing things up beautifully by saying “Data is the new oil”. Retailers are starting to use that data to provide insight into their customers, both online and in-store, and then use that insight to delight those same customers. 

Keeping up with what the customer wants is a never ending journey and it’s impressive to see brands like Suitsupply, the Netherlands based men’s clothing retailer with over 60+ worldwide stores using customer and product data to intelligently predict the next best action or product for their customers, in order to drive up conversion rates. 

That insight is also being used by retailers to deliver effective 1-to-1 marketing at scale. Throughout the week we heard from disruptive retail brands such as Fanatics, a licensed sports clothing brand who deliver personalisation at scale, creating 1-to-1 marketing offers to fans across the United States, within seconds of the end of a sports game.

Mike Mauler, Executive Vice President and President at GameStop International, told us his company uses it’s 50 million-strong global loyalty program not so much as a way to drive sales, but to continually survey customers to see what they want – information that helps prioritise its investments. “The power of a strong loyalty program is using data to really know your customers,” he said. By using insight from a wide range of moments of engagement along the shopping journey the retailers of the future are getting to know their customers better.

3. Employee engagement

The third theme running through The NRF’s Big Show was the subject of employees, their in-store engagement and the role that plays in the experience for customers. 

According to McKinsey, 48% of shoppers never ask a store associate for assistance. In some cases, it’s because the shopper feels more informed about a product than the store associate. There are retailers who are fixing this situation. Providing in-store staff with the information, tools and insight they need to provide the right service at the right time. Automating common store operations frees up the store associates to be able to focus on delighting the customer not just transacting with them.

Employee morale was a hot topic too, Sir Richard Branson’s keynote discussion stressed the importance of having a good staff morale, letting employees make mistakes and making sure they “enjoy coming into work in the morning.” He added “People within the company will work that much harder if they feel they can be proud of the company.” 

Earlier in the show Walmart's Greg Foran and Terry Lundgren of Macy's discussed the importance of attracting and retaining top retail talent. That comes about when employees are proud of the company they work for which involves transforming their culture, their loyalty and their employee empowerment.

Branson and outgoing NRF Chairman Kip Tindell discussed equality and diversity within retail management, though of course this is an issue which transcends across most industries. Tindell pointed out that “only 24 of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are women”. That push for equality and diversity is something we champion at Salesforce and I am delighted that we've recently hired Tony Prophet in the role of the company’s Chief Equality Officer.

What now? 

So after all is said and done; how do retailers put into action some of the best practice that’s been the subject of discussion over the 3 days of the show? 

Transformation for many retailers is seen as a long term process, but actually it’s simpler and involves getting these basics right:

  • Creating a single view of the customer with a universal CRM
  • Moving away from mass-marketing with greater (and automated) personalisation 
  • Enabling mobile POS and inventory visibility in-store

Once those foundations are in place, brands can then innovate and break the rules around brand experience, store experience and people. 

What about 2018?

Part of the fun each year at NRF is predicting what to expect from retail as we think about next year’s Big Show. 

Some of the future predictions centred around bots, conversational commerce and machine learning. Lots of discussion too about removing silos, boundaries and channels and enabling true collaboration within organisations.

With the pressures that 2017 will bring, it is going to be fascinating to see which retailers succeed by adapting and innovating quickly, and which will struggle, and then which of these future conversations become the hot topics of the NRF Big Show in 2018. Either way – I’ll see you there! 

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out our recently released Connected Shoppers Report, where we asked more than 4,000 adults across three key markets about today’s retail shopping experience. Check out this new report to see what they had to say, and use it to help shape your own future vision for retail.