Dispatches from NRF 2024: 5 takeaways from Retail’s Big Show
Another NRF comes to a close. The National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show never fails to showcase what’s new and noteworthy in retail—and in the frontline world as a whole.
I’ve attended NRF more than a few times (five years and counting!). And one thing that really struck me this year in particular was the pride that retailers are taking in how they support their frontlines. Time and time again, leaders took to the stage with a common mantra: memorable customer experience starts with a quality employee experience. It’s exciting to see such an industry-wide embrace of associate enablement and a recognition of the business success that comes from investing in your people on the floor.
Here are five more takeaways I’ve been talking about since I got back from NRF24:
1. The need for “sustainable change”
If there’s one pain retail knows well, it’s change management. Getting a thousand, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of associates to shift a process or do something differently… it’s not easy. But now more than ever, especially with emerging technologies and other changes, retail needs a successful playbook for adoption. And for grocery chain Giant Eagle, it’s all about collaboration across stakeholder teams and leaders. “How do we partner?” asked Janis Leigh, EVP and Chief People Officer in her Big Ideas session. “Operations can’t drop everything to roll out HR initiatives.” So getting buy-in and fostering the collaboration needed to drive change is all about finding the value that matters to each stakeholder, building up that champion network and igniting true, sustainable change. Mic drop.
2. AI to reduce friction points
Retailers are hungry for AI—the understatement of the year, but I’ll still say it. At NRF, AI was presented as a co-pilot, an assistant, a sidekick…the list goes on and on. But 2023 was all about blue-sky possibilities. As Chandhu Nair, SVP of Data, Analytics and Computational Intelligence and Marketing Technology at Lowe’s, put it in one session, “Generative AI is one of those things where it’s death by a thousand use cases.”
So 2024 is fast becoming the year where retailers (and solutions) fine-tune a more succinct list of core use cases for AI, with a strong focus on optimizing workflows, staying agile and, especially, reducing friction.
3. Preparing for pivots
Some change happens slowly. But for many retailers, it increasingly needs to happen at a breakneck pace. In her keynote, Levi’s soon-to-be CEO Michelle Gass talked about rewiring the business to be more agile and move in the market more quickly.
That is a challenge retail brand rue21 knows well. “We’re fast fashion,” explained Karlyn Mattson, EVP and Chief Customer Officer in her Big Ideas session with Axonify. “We become much more important to a consumer when we’re better serving those fast ideas that are percolating in the market.” So how does rue21 stay agile and responsive to market changes when they’re enabling 580 stores across the country? They prepare their people for fast change with consolidated digital tools for strong, concise, real-time communication. And that paid off big time over the holidays.
“One way that we really won over the holiday period was having a deep understanding of what is stacking on the deck, what’s driving it, what’s working, what’s not. Quick pivots,” explained Ann-Marie Clendenin, SVP Stores, Operations & Visual. “But our stores felt really safe and secure in knowing we had a plan and there were contingencies built in, and we had tight communication to stores so they could deliver for our customer and not feel overwhelmed with what they were being asked to do.”
4. Harvesting All. The. Data. (without scaring customers away)
Is this a new topic? No. Still a big one for retail? Yes. Particularly with emerging technology like AI, capturing and processing data, and using it to make data-driven decisions, continues to be an elusive challenge. At many booths, the crowd-sourced answer to “What’s the biggest problem you face in retail?” was all about data and staying agile with “actionable moments.”
Particularly as customers become more savvy and aware of the programs retailers are running, this requires an added layer of finesse. In a panel led by Forrester Research, Sneha Narahalli, Sephora’s Head of Product & UX, put it best: “It’s important to build experiences that don’t scream, We want data from you!’”
But it’s not always easy. In rue21’s session, there was plenty of discussion around the challenges of collecting valuable data when your customer and your buyer are two different people. “We have to really think about other ways that we can ingest data to get a better picture of who that customer is so that in turn the decisions that we’re making really drive the right choices for our customer to engage from a loyalty perspective,” explained Karlyn Mattson, EVP and Chief Customer Officer. The data saga continues…
5. The human side of retail theft
We’ve been talking about theft and organized retail crime for a while now, but an often-ignored piece of this near-impossible puzzle is the human element: how theft impacts the associates experiencing it. And how the sense of pride and loyalty that retailers work so hard to instill in their people gets contradicted by the theft policies designed to keep associates safe. Dick Johnson, former CEO of Foot Locker, explored the topic at an executive breakfast we held during NRF: “We reinforce every day with our teams that no product in the store is worth a fight worth your life, worth the anguish that can come with it. But it becomes a really difficult thing because the people that work for you, they’re passionate about what they do, they love the business. It’s a personal affront to them when somebody comes in and steals something.” As one attendee at the breakfast summed it up: “Our store associates are super passionate. This is their story.”
So how do you re-instill that pride and empowerment after an incident? For Dick, it’s all about bringing the conversation back to the impact that associates have on the customer experience: “When you bring it back to the good work that they do every time they’re able to register, every time they’re able to satisfy a customer, every time they’re able to use our omnichannel efforts to find that product that isn’t in their store, that’s good. And yeah, people are going to do bad things. But the one bad thing should not outweigh all of the good that they do every day of the week.” Not a bad approach for us all to consider.
As we dive into the coming year, I’m excited to see how these trends—and passion and pride in supporting our people—will continue to inform the frontline experience.