NRF 2020 Vision: 7 Key Takeaways for Retailers

As the sun sets over the NRF horizon and the doors close once more on Retail’s Big Show, it’s my pleasure to share with you some of the key highlights from this year’s expo. For a comprehensive view, it’s worth checking the NRF website, but here are my seven key takeaways for professionals concerned with the future of retail technology.

1. Personalisation Remains a Primary Concern

Professionals within the retail sphere have long-been banging the drum on personalisation. In fact, it has been central to the NRF narrative for the last five years. But as we shape up to embrace the decade ahead, personalisation remains a key part of the retail equation.

In his keynote address to the NRF audience, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, said that “the case for personalisation was clear”. Meanwhile, NRF Chairman, Christopher Baldwin, stated that consumers “have more power than ever before” and that tailoring the retail experience around the needs of the customer has never been more important.

While the ability of retailers to leverage the vast amounts of information they have on consumers remains a significant stumbling block for many, the mantra of personalise, personalise, personalise has never been more significant.

2. AR Looks Set to Reach Its Full Potential

Augmented Reality (AR) has long been held in high esteem within retail, but due to the complexity surrounding its integration into the customer shopping journey, it’s been found languishing within the category of “nice to have” in recent years.

2020 spells the end of this hiatus, however, as NRF 2020 Vision provided a unique insight into the functional application of the technology within retail. Rolex introduced its AR App late last year, which enables users to visualise how a watch would look on them in the real world, and many companies from HP to ARGO to PTC were exhibiting their creations within the AR section of the NRF arena. But my favourite video comes from this tweet from Vala Afshar which shows just how far AR technology has come.

3. Retailers Need to Focus on Convenience

Convenience has always played a central role in retail; a new report released by NRF and widely discussed during the conference, shows convenience has returned with a bang.

The newest Consumer View report found that 97% of shoppers have backed out of a purchase because of an inconvenient shopping experience. It continues to say that 93% of shoppers are likely to choose to shop at a specific retailer based on convenience. And, my favourite statistic of all, 83% of consumers say convenience is more important to them now than it was just five years ago. Add to this a study from Deloitte which found that “whether in the store or online, consumers want a friction-free experience” and it’s clear the convenience narrative has never been stronger.

In an age of innovation, where technological advancements are praised and admired, reminders that the retail sphere must continue to approach innovation through the lens of customer experience is a phenomenon to be welcomed with open arms.

4. AI is Reformed, Reborn, and Reimagined

AI has become so deeply entrenched within the retail space that any new attempt to discuss it risks feeling underwhelming. But, against better advice, I’m going to try anyway.

Artificial Intelligence was, of course, a key talking point at this year’s NRF. But perhaps the most startling takeaway from the event was the wide and varied application of the technology throughout a number of different retail areas.

Walmart has famously leveraged AI to create its Intelligent Retail Lab that, it hopes, will provide unbridled applications for the technology long into the future. Starbucks uses an AI called Deep Brew to handle inventory calculations which, according to Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson, in his keynote address, “frees up baristas to better connect with one another and connect with customers“. And all manner of smaller retailers are trying their hand at putting AI to the test.

PetSmart has been looking at ways to combine AI with indoor location technology to “figure out how to appropriately interact with customers”. FULLBEAUTY, an online clothier, is looking at the technology to develop new ways to handle data. And SUNMI launched three separate AI-driven solutions to empower brick-and-mortar stores to deliver a seamless customer experience.

However, in the face of all this disparate innovation, this tweet from Evan Kirstel is, for me, the one that truly encapsulates the continued promise of this tenured technology.

5. The Rise of the Machine

There is little debate over the busiest section of the NRF expo this year, it was the one dedicated to the wonderful world of robotics, with a large number of organisations debuting their newest creations.

Zebra unveiled its retail intelligence automation system, SmartSight, which it claims can improve front-of-store operations and enhance shopper experiences. And Trax showcased its innovative and breakthrough computer vision platform, which helps retailers increase sales and maximise profit through real-time shelf data.

NRF was as expected fantastically focused on the ability of technology to help retailers to improve the customer experience and drive visibility and cost efficiency, but the conference also provided an opportunity for attendees to learn more about the work being conducted by Alibaba Group. The company have created a smart warehouse where robots do 70% of the work, 300% more efficiently, which delivered them the opportunity to sell $38.4 billion worth of stock in just one day. And while there was some dispute between Jack Ma and Elon Musk about who was smarter, the clever computers or humble humans, there seems to be little debate as to the value of robotics and automation in the future.

6. Technology Investment Goes In-House

The NRF conference plays host to myriad retail professionals from all manner of organisations, ranging from local stores to global juggernauts. Technology obviously plays a central role in the health of all these businesses, providing a means to drive improved revenue and capture increased market share. But, at the enterprise-level, an increasing number of corporations are choosing to acquire their own R&D companies, using them as incubators for new and exciting innovation projects that will deliver long-term benefits over the course of the new decade.

Last year, McDonald’s purchased Dynamic Yield, a marketing technology and data processing company. In February, Walmart purchased Aspectiva, an innovative AI solution provider. And, over the last few years, Nordstrom, Ulta, Kroger, and Target have all invested in innovation hubs or start-ups. Time will tell whether an investment in proprietary technology will deliver a sufficient ROI, but after a handful of NRF conversations, it looks likely to be a trend set to accelerate, nonetheless.

7. A New Side to Innovation

NRF 2020 offered attendees a glimpse into the future of the industry with an unparalleled level of retail innovation on display for all to see. But, while it’s the catalyst driving the industry forward, alone it fails to guarantee success. At this year’s conference, there was much more focus on the practical side of innovation: delivery and execution mechanisms, scalability objectives, and ROI indicators – this will no doubt be the difference between the leaders and chasing pack throughout the forthcoming year. This quote from David Wilkinson, Senior VP at NCR, summarising this trend “We have to change the old paradigm and become API-first, use community-sourced software, use common tools, and leverage the cloud.”

A Final Word of Thanks

For me, the future of retail revolves around notions of trust and authenticity. Both retailers and technology partners must be able to support their local communities in an honest, simple, and transparent fashion. Speed, agility, and the ability to scale will, as always, be a core consideration. But it is the ability to do that and remain true to the core values that will be the holy grail over the course of the 2020s.

McDonald Butlerhas, for the last 15 years, hosted an NRF after-party – and this year’s, held at Elsie’s Rooftop in the bustling heart of Broadway, was another great success. Huge thanks to our generous sponsors, Ciklum, Retail EXPO, as well as our charity partner, Pennies, alongside the venue, the team, and everyone who joined us in making this year’s event the best yet. It truly was a night to remember.

If you’re interested in finding out more about McDonald Butler’s work in the retail sector, or you’d like to get in touch with Alison from Pennies to know more about the fantastic work they’re doing, you can get in contact here. Or if you’re interested in attending one of our exclusive events – whether next year’s exclusive after-party or our post-NRF event at the Four Seasons on March 5th-6thin Hampshire – please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me directly.

mike@mcdonaldbutler.com