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Top Takeaways from the NRF Big Show 2019

Patrick Tripp | January 29, 2019

In hindsight, a poor customer experience I had during the holidays with a big box retailer before NRF 2019 Retail’s Big Show was somewhat serendipitous, to look at the positive side of what was unquestionably a string of CX failures.

The silver lining is that one, I was able to share this disconnected omnichannel experience during my NRF presentation (see video below), and two, the experience was a key reminder of many of the major themes and topics emanating from the conference that are top of mind for retailers today: personalization and the customer experience, the maturity of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in retail, and the importance of omnichannel fulfillment, among others.

Perhaps the most important and pressing topic across the event was on diversity and women in retail. I’ll go through each one as I share a few of the sessions and presentations that resonated with me, both as a consumer and as someone who helps customers use technology to solve some of their more pressing retail challenges.

Personalization and an Improved Customer Experience

Forrester Research retail analyst Sucharita Kodali teased the upcoming State of Retailing Online survey at the show, and it’s no surprise that improving the customer experience emerged as one of the four main priorities for retailers in 2019.

A presentation from Walmart CTO Jeremy King drove the point home. King said that Walmart spent $11.7 billion in technology improvements in 2018, with part of the investment tied to personalizing the experience for its 140 million weekly in-store customers. “We have to be integrated across the board not just in handheld devices but through customer shopping lists, pickup, and more,” he said. “Technology is definitely changing retail.”

This was a major theme of my own presentation, that customers expect a consistent in-person and digital experience and will go elsewhere if it’s not met. To do it, though – as King mentioned– requires an organizational-wide single view of the customer and systems that leverage real-time data. It’s why we see 89 percent of digital businesses, Walmart included, investing in personalization to align with customer expectations.

Omnichannel Fulfillment

While generating a single view of the customer and recognizing a customer throughout a non-linear customer journey is incredibly important, so too is omnichannel order management, as evidenced by Brendan Witcher from Forrester’s presentations and many others at NRF 2019 devoted to ensuring what is promised to consumers is delivered by brands.

Fulfillment is inextricably linked to a positive customer experience. Consumers expect immediacy and convenience, and a failure to provide either can derail an otherwise seamless customer journey. One session drove home this point. “A Long View on Logistics and the Future of Fulfillment” brought together executives from Kroger, UPS, and the Ocado Group who discussed the immense changes underway in order management, highlighting that click-and-collect – or buy online, pickup in-store (BOPIS) – is up 300 percent over the past two years for just the grocery category, and that delivery times for all products were cut in half over a two-year period ending March, 2018 as retailers raced to narrow the gap with Amazon.

Last mile fulfillment – beyond all the logistics and supply chain implications – is helped when a retailer has a unified customer profile and a single point of control over data, decisions, and interactions. With a platform that automates a next-best action recommendation at every interaction, a retailer can better execute a process like BOPIS by sending relevant notifications or offers in the right channel all the way to fulfillment. This could take the form of sending a push notification letting the customer know where to park, for example.

Today’s empowered consumers are in charge of their own customer journeys, and smart, forward-thinking retailers know that the journey doesn’t end with the sale.

AI and Machine Learning

The consensus from NRF 2019 was that AI and machine learning as they pertain to retail is no longer a question of if, but when. In other words, the time for preparation is now because AI and machine learning are already being embedded in both the in-store and online experience.

Deborah Weinswig, CEO of retail and tech consultancy Coresight Research, said at one panel discussion that AI will become a retailers’ “go-to” technology. “Retail will adopt AI technology the fastest in the next three years,” she said, estimating the industry adoption rate at 54 percent over the next three years.

I highlighted AI and the importance of embracing realistic machine learning tactics in my own presentation as instrumental in closing the gap between what customers expect and what brands can deliver. Retailers and brands need advanced analytics to move beyond traditional segmentation and scale the next-best action across any number of devices and interactions. AI does the tactical heavy lifting and can be combined with manually created business rules to address the complexity that arises from millions of customers engaging with your brand in an omnichannel environment.

AI provides the opportunity for use cases like zero segment marketing – personalization at scale. AI applies a layer of analytics on top of a single customer view. The organization can determine business rules, content, strategy and oversight, and then leave AI to work through those rules to score the customers and offers to recommend the right sequence of events for every interaction – path to purchase optimization.

Women in Retail and Diversity

A panel on how technology and women are disrupting the way we shop revealed a fascinating statistic: that women make more than 80 percent of all purchasing decisions. This panel was one of many at event focused on how women are breaking through a traditionally male-dominated field, both as consumers and as executives. There were various panels on women leadership in retail and a Girls’ Lounge which had sessions on entrepreneurship, personal brand, and negotiation skills.

James Fripp, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at YUM! Brands, presented a session on the Inclusion Imperative and highlighted a few revealing diversity statistics pertaining to retail, including an estimate that the yearly purchasing power of the LGBT community is nearly $1 trillion. Marketing to diversity, Fripp said, begins by establishing authenticity, relationships, and trust, and requires organizations to examine diversity within their own ranks and to lead by example.

What struck me about the diversity topic is it speaks to another theme that emerged from the event, the humanization of retail. Often when we speak about personalization and the customer experience, we focus on the how and the why.

At its heart, personalization is about treating the customer as a human being, aligning nicely with the goal of diversity – an inclusiveness that factors in our uniqueness. It’s an important lesson, and a great reminder that using technology to learn everything there is to know about the customer is a win-win that extends beyond business benefits. That’s an important takeaway from every aspect of the NRF event.

I previewed NRF 2019 in an earlier blog post, and the event put a bow on many of the topics and themes brought up in the blog – BOPIS, AI, and path-to-purchase optimization among them –trends that will continue to resonate with retailers and that we will continue to explore in this blog throughout the year.

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Patrick Tripp
Patrick Tripp

Patrick is vice president of product strategy for the Customer Engagement Hub at RedPoint Global, where he leverages over 20 years of experience in technology, consulting, and marketing. Patrick is an expert in cross-channel marketing and real-time interaction management, and is a frequent speaker at industry events. He is a certified product manager and holds an MBA from Boston University. Connect with Patrick on LinkedIn and Twitter.