e-commerce · Personalization · Retail

Retail’s ‘Big Show’: A few key takeaways

Every year 35,000 or so of my closest friends assemble in New York City for the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show”–a three day extravaganza featuring dozens of presentations, a huge technology EXPO and networking, networking, networking. During my 25+ year career as an executive (at Neiman Marcus and Sears) and now as an independent consultant, author and speaker, I have attended at least a dozen times.

This year three major things struck me. First, there was a giddy optimism as the industry convened on the heels of the most robust holiday season in more than a decade. Second, attendance was up considerably. No matter that the Javits Convention Center is ill equipped to handle the growing throngs. Third, much of the main stage content was steeped in overly self-promotional messaging; heavy on the “what” and largely devoid of any useful “how’s”. Organizers need to take note of how the audience regularly voted with its feet, leaving en masse during several sessions where the speaker failed to provide any truly useful or relevant content.

Yet moving past some of the limitations seemingly inherent to most large industry conferences, there were a few major themes and takeaways from the event.

The end of e-commerce.

Anyone who has been paying attention (or who has been following research from folks like Deloitte Digital) knows that the distinction between e-commerce and physical stores is increasingly a distinction without a difference. Digital drives brick & mortar shopping and vice versa. It’s all just commerce now and the customer is the channel. As outgoing NRF Chairperson and recently retired Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren put it “retail is retail” wherever it occurs. It’s not clear to me why the industry has been so slow to embrace this reality, but various speakers seemed to finally acknowledge what I’ve been writing about since 2010–and what many winning brands having been putting into practice for years. Retailers need a one brand, many channels strategy and silos belong on farms.

The death of physical retail has been greatly exaggerated.

NRF CEO Matthew Shay was among several speakers who challenged the “retail apocalypse” narrative, pointing to the large number of retailers that continue to open stores (including many once online-only brands) and the fact that overall shopping in brick & mortar store has not declined. He won’t get any argument from me. Lost, however, in debunking the high-level narrative is any level of nuance. The fact is retail’s future is not being evenly distributed. On average physical retail is doing okay, but it’s fair to say that individual retailer’s mileage will vary–often considerably. The middle continues to collapse and many retailers’ existence is being challenged by the seismic shifts in retail. Physical is not dead, but boring retail is.

This time it’s personal.

A strong theme, both from speakers and from various exhibitors in the technology EXPO, was personalization. More and more retailers are finally accepting that one of the best paths to being more intensely relevant and remarkable is to treat different customers differently by using data and advanced technology to tailor marketing messages and the overall experience. Finding ways to be compelling, rather than creepy, annoying or just bad, isn’t easy, but retailers from emerging (Stitch Fix) to legacy (Neiman Marcus) are finding ways to make it work.

Artificial intelligence is ready for its close-up.

While still relatively early in its deployment, AI was at the center of major technology announcements, including IBM’s new V9 Watson-enabled commerce platform (full disclosure: I’m a member of their Influencer program). A wide range of companies, from Alibaba to eBay to Williams-Sonoma, also discussed how artificial intelligence, machine learning and related advanced analytics tools are enhancing their ability to execute marketing and merchandising strategies. Clearly, use cases are being proven out and momentum is building.

The false ebullience of the holiday season.

Coming off of a robust holiday season, optimism was definitely in the air. I hate to be cynical (though it IS one of my super powers), but there are at least two things to bear in mind as the industry moves forward. First, a month or two of above average sales is no guarantee of sustained momentum. Any euphoria from tax cuts and a buoyant stock market is likely to be short-lived as the realities of a largely dysfunctional US government and ballooning deficits become more apparent. Second, the gulf between the have’s and have not’s continues to widen. A great quarter for the industry in total does somewhere between little or nothing for failing retailers. Arguably, for a few, it may give them a tiny bit of breathing room. But the long-term prospects of brands like Sears, Macy’s and JC Penney are not meaningfully better because of the overall strong holiday season. We went into the season with a mixed-bag of performance and we’ll come out of it with the same exact mix.

The best time to plant a tree.

Nobody needed to attend the NRF show to be reminded that the retailers that have gone out of business–or are struggling mightily–suffer(ed) from two main root problems. First, they did not focus enough time and energy on deeply understanding their customers and evolving with those changing needs and wants. Second, they fundamentally failed to embrace a culture of innovation and experimentation.

In addition to hearing from numerous fast-growing disruptive retailers, XRCLabs sponsored the Innovation Lab which showcased 25 emerging technology companies. There was plenty of variety to choose from in the booths and among the various talks. Both were typically packed. Of course the real question is how many were there as spectators versus how many will actually have the courage to act on what they saw and learned.

For retailers that have a hard time keeping pace with change, it’s worth remembering the Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  

For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

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