NRF’s Big Show hit New York once again this week with an expo floor covering every form of technology modern retailers need today*, and big topics of conversation pointing to the future of the industry.
From a topline perspective, focus was on everything from personalization through artificial intelligence, to the need for speed, enabling a frictionless experience as well as the increasing demand for invisibility in technology.
Artificial intelligence remains one of the hot terms in the industry today – machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing and chatbots were found left, right and center across NRF. Underlying that in terms of the reason it matters, however, was a focus on personalization for customers. Neiman Marcus’ president and CEO, Karen Katz, talked to the challenge of shifting from being a retailer that nails this in store through the human-to-human experience, and now trying to replicate that in the online world. “Online is where the next level is presenting itself for [service-oriented] personalization,” she said.
Spencer Fung, CEO of Li & Fung, talked to the idea of the industry shifting from being optimized by cost, to finding competitive advantage in speed. As an industry, the time it takes to get from ideas to stores has only extended by virtue of parts of the supply chain located further and further away. “This cost optimization model in a world where consumers are moving 10x faster is no longer valid. You can no longer make decisions today on what will sell in 40-50 weeks time,” he said. The supply chain of the future, underpinned by new technology, is predicated by speed.
While technology is so central to the NRF scene, the discussion for retailers is increasingly around how to make this invisible for consumers. “The most relevant future innovation platforms are ones that consumers don’t see,” said Levi’s brand president James JC Curleigh. He talked to the idea of complete simplicity on the front end, all the while there’s increasing sophistication behind-the-scenes. Intel’s chief innovation officer, Stacey Shulman, agreed with this point, telling us: “Technology should never be at the forefront from a consumer perspective, it just needs to be the helper at the back. It’s what enables sales associates to get back to the customer and back to what’s important.”
In the context of NRF, the word “omnichannel” is an oft-overused one. This year, however, it was the idea of making retail frictionless that was bandied about more predominantly. Neiman Marcus’ Katz talked to this as being one of the organization’s greatest challenges. Calling it frictionless retail is about having greater scope for every touchpoint, she suggested. Nordstrom’s SVP of customer experience, Shea Jensen, meanwhile, told us her focus is on providing convenience; doing things in the context of continuously solving customer problems.
*Want to know which technologies we deemed most relevant from the show floor? Our team of startup scouts combed through the innovations demonstrated, examining and analyzing those of chief importance to retailers and brands today. Get in touch to find out more.