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The retail industry’s annual conference, National Retail Federation (NRF), draws in large crowds from around the globe, all waiting to hear and see the latest technologies, solutions, and learnings from the world’s most brilliant innovators. This year’s event was held in a massive 1.8 million square foot Javits Convention Center in Manhattan that brought thousands of retailers, vendors, and influencers together under one roof.

Now that the event is in the rearview and all our business cards are exhausted, we’ve unpacked some of our key observations from the “Retail's Big Show.”

Creating destination-style customer experience: Seamless data connectivity has empowered retailers to close the gap between physical and digital retail. It has opened a huge array of possibilities for inviting the existing and new customers to the store with the help of online promotional activities. Marketers can gain new insights with integrated digital customer data to offer recommendations, personalization, and convenience for shoppers.

“How do you use all that data and how do you take digital technologies to the next level to empower employees, enable the digital supply chain and redefine the retail experience itself?” – Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

Brick-and-mortar stores are here to stay: While online sales are accelerating, e-commerce in the US is slated to reach $740 B in 2023, but physical retail is still an important part of the retail journey. This year’s event drove a lot of dialog around the changing dynamics of physical stores. It was evident as many vendors on the exhibitor floor were catering to the legacy brick-and-mortar retailers and selling them products like scanning equipment and store displays.

A session titled “Price, Strategies, and Agility: Thriving in a Multi-Channel Retail Environment,” with executives from Bed Bath & Beyond and Dick’s Sporting Goods, revealed that 80% of consumers research online before going to a store. They believe that while in-person shopping is still common, the customer purchase journey now increasingly originates in the digital space. Thus, it would be fair to say that it truly comes down to meeting the customer where they are through an omnichannel strategy. 

Amazon and Kohl’s join hands to increase foot traffic and sales: In a conversion between Kohl’s CEO, Michelle Gass, and CNBC reporter, Courtney Reagan, Gass revealed the partnership between Kohl’s and Amazon where the shoppers can return any item purchased at Amazon at any Kohl’s store. This strategy is aimed at increasing the conversion rate of the shoppers who enter the Kohl’s store for Amazon return.

Empowering the future of retail: Retailers have now understood the sense of urgency in powering retail with extended reality (AR/VR), chatbots, voice-based mobile assistants, digital commerce, etc. AI and ML innovations were on full display that illustrated the potential of how people and smart robotics can work together to redefine retail experiences. It was great to see 3D modeling, AR, and ML coming together to help customers visualize products in their homes or offices, making it easier for retailers to present their brand’s design perspective without needing to hire high-cost photo stylists, top photographers, or budget-bending studio space. All the factors evidently contributed to create a unified experience and make smarter decisions in real-time.

Improved logistics: Retailers are not just focused on improving the purchases, but also on revolutionizing the logistics with the help of blockchain and IoT. Yes, blockchain is not just related to cryptocurrency, it is changing the face of logistics industry by providing businesses with critical insights, like cracking down on counterfeiting, tracking temperature fluctuations to keep temperature-sensitive products safe in the inventory, etc. IoT, on the other hand, ensures that the messages containing valuable recommendations reach the right people, enabling real-time decision making and action implementation.

Sustainability to drive retail in the new decade: NRF featured many speakers that set a bold vision of consumers’ growing interest in thrifting, upcycling, and high-quality second-hand products. Today’s consumer is aware of growing environmental issues and wants to do their bit by making eco-friendly purchases. Many are also calling it a green revolution in retail. Given the wake, innovators are experimenting with more eco-friendly packaging materials. This has also given rise to many “re-commerce” companies. Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway that provides designer dresses and accessories on rent, has said, “We’ve always been believers that the pride of ownership is being replaced with the pride of access.”

Collaboration for better cybersecurity: As technology continues to evolve, so does the cyber threat landscape. Despite the fierce competition, we found many cybersecurity professionals talking about collaboration as a critical defense tactic and urging the retailers to learn to work together and defend themselves against the cyber threat actors. Retail CIOs emphasized in taking a holistic approach when selecting a potential partner. They must understand how a partnership can pivot and evolve to incorporate new innovations and breakthrough technology that provides scalability, maturity, and security.

Focus on global expansion: While NRF is no stranger to international players, this year saw some of the biggest names teaming up with their compatriots. For instance, France shared a booth for all its exhibitors to promote the amazing work done in their respective countries. China took center stage to put the word out for their rapidly growing middle class that has a better spending power than prior generations. Christina Fontana, head of fashion and luxury Tmall division of Alibaba Group, described how the company developed technologies and services that let global brands interact with the Chinese customers directly.

Growing social shoppers: Ever since social media has branched out to support e-commerce; it has been the key growth area for many brands. Instagram has taken a lead in this sphere since, according to Asher Rapkin (director of global business marketing for Messenger and emerging platforms at Facebook), it doesn’t require consumers to move off-platform to complete a purchase.

“We actually make a concerted effort to make it really easy to shop—trying to make that transition from inspiration to actually pressing a checkout button as easy as possible when the content is in that vein.” - Amy Eschliman, Senior Vice President of Client Engagement at beauty retailer Sephora.

This year’s conference featured keynoters like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Johnson of Starbucks, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, but the emphasis on Generation Z and experiential shopping was the highlight of the event. It will be safe to say that NRF 2020 did not lack ingenuity; from Indeed’s edible selfie booth to NEC’s creepy yet convenient facial-payment software, the attendees were wowed with the latest and greatest innovations.

A special thanks to everyone who stopped by our booth and we hope that we help you in “finding your vision”. Until next year!