Just about every year for the past 25 or so, I make the trek to New York to rub shoulders (quite literally) with nearly 40,000 of my closest friends (not literally) during the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show.” It’s always a great opportunity to connect with the industry’s movers and shakers, see the latest in retail technology, hear from established and up-and-coming brand leaders and put one’s claustrophobia to the test.
In past years I’ve written a synthesis of my key takeaways from the event. But this year I’d like to focus on just one theme, partially because there are many excellent summaries already published–like this one from the NRF, this post from fellow contributor Chris Walton or this one from Forrester’s Brendan Witcher. The more substantive reason, however, is to address what many of us may already know yet have a hard time admitting: armed with all this knowledge we will leave the Big Apple behind, go back to our jobs and precisely nothing of any import will change.
The sad and frustrating fact is that I have attended the Big Show (and many other retail events) long enough to hear many of the same things repeated over and over again only to return a year later aghast, realizing that so few brands have acted upon what is increasingly obvious, important and, all too often, dire.
Every year, for the better part of a decade, we have heard speakers talk about how the the channels are blurring, how we are moving to a mobile-first customer journey, how important it is to root out friction in the customer experience, how data must be leveraged to provide a more personalized experience and on and on. And every year my guess is many in the audience return to hear a re-packaged version of the same prognostications having taken little or no action in the intervening time.
As one small example, I sat in on presentation where the speaker shared the “insight” that customers who shop in more than one channel are “better” customers. Aside from confusing correlation with causality–and aside from having shared this type of analysis myself at two different retailers in 2003 and 2006 respectively–some version of this alleged wisdom nugget has been trotted out at many a conference for quite some time. So if this is new knowledge to anyone in the audience it merely proves that they haven’t been paying much attention. But in the absence of a time machine, the real questions we are left with are: so what? and now what?
Over 3 days, and now for multiple years running, we’re told “the customer is back” or that physical retail isn’t dead or that we shouldn’t worry because e-commerce is “only” 10% of all retail. While this may be true in the abstract, the one thing we know for sure is that no one brand experiences any of these trends in the aggregate or in the same way. For some retailers, the customers they’ve been chasing are never coming back, their stores are in fact dead or dying and they may be experiencing a much bigger migration to digital commerce with attendant devastating consequences. Your mileage WILL vary and these platitudes are neither very useful nor very comforting.
What we must do instead is to take this big picture knowledge and translate it into strategies that matter for our unique situation. And then we must take action: by launching innovative experiments, by refining what has potential and scaling it fast, by killing quickly what isn’t working. Rinse and repeat.
Showing up is a start, but merely sitting in the audience consuming information doesn’t count for much.
Taking amazing notes or writing pithy summaries can be helpful, but without doing anything with it it’s mostly a waste of energy.
And enthusiasm is great, but the cheerleaders never win the game.
If the knowledge doesn’t translate into useful and meaningful action a visit to NRF is merely a vacation. And a chilly and expensive one at that.
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.