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NRF 2020: Looking to the future

The trends at this year’s NRF showcased a retail future that perfectly blends connection, meaning, and personal experience with new technologies.


Every January, the National Retail Foundation Big Show (NRF) brings retailers, technologists, and service providers from around the world to New York for three days of amazing technology and thought-provoking panels. This year, over 20 of Slalom’s retail experts joined 40,000 attendees to celebrate our clients and partners and get curious about the innovative strategies, technologies, and solutions that were being discussed. 

We were humbled and honored to begin NRF as the winner of a Retailers Favorite community award and a finalist for Best Consultancy at the Vendors in Partnership Awards Gala, an event which celebrates exceptional collaboration and partnership between retailers and service providers such as Slalom. 

On Sunday evening, Slalom co-hosted a client appreciation event with our partners at Dell Boomi to welcome our clients to NRF and share more about our latest offering in cooperation with Dell Boomi focused on CCPA readiness. 

Throughout the show, Slalom’s retail experts were tracking trends and searching for highlights that will support our clients as we head into a new decade. Here are some of our key findings.

Create lifestyle experiences

A few trends from previous years are ongoing. Experiential shopping is still popular. Some brands, such as Lexus, are experimenting with more theatrical experiences and even moving away from physical products in stores and showrooms altogether, while BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) is becoming a foundational capacity for retailers, rather than a differentiator. Driving 360-degree insights with data and using more data and stronger tools to empower front line employees also remains a big focus.

So what’s new in 2020? Online and in-store experiences are merging to create a single, seamless, and highly personalized experiences for customers. Stores such as Nordstorm offer differentiated services—local alterations, returns and shipping, and personal styling—that allow them to become part of their customer’s lifestyle. Similarly, Rag & Bone has introduced video conferencing and IM to their website. In both cases, customers get the benefit of real-time interactions with store associates and personal connections, while enjoying the convenience of online. During his NRF keynote speech, Erik Nordstrom remarked that “customers don’t think of retail in terms of channels.” Retailers must instead take what’s strong about a store experience and translate it to an online experience, and vice versa.

modern retail space
modern retail store

Inspire customer loyalty with brand values

In line with this focus on deeper connection, many retailers are putting their brand ethos and values front and center to inspire customers and ultimately drive engagement, brand affinity, and sales. Mastercard’s CEO Ajay Banga, and Micky Onuvral, CEO of Bonobos, highlighted the role of brand values in their separate discussions. For Banga, staying true to Mastercard’s brand values of trust and transparency is critical both in making strategic business decisions and maintaining relationships with their customers. A values focus can touch every aspect of the shopping experience, right down to pricing decisions. For example, as Micky Onvural noted, if your brand stands for inclusivity, you can’t charge more for bigger sizes. When it comes to engaging through values, consistency is key. 

Go headless without losing your mind

What is headless e-commerce? It’s a way of describing a separation of the front-end presentation layer from the back-end commerce layer. And, when switching from a traditional commerce stack with the backing of efficient order fulfillment and optimized process, it’s a separation that allows retailers to have a broad and flexible reach.

Headless e-commerce can support subscription-based models and create more brand recognition in smaller marketplaces. By harnessing headless e-commerce in social media channels, for example, brands can fully integrate products into their customers’ lives, driving commerce through content without ever disrupting the customer’s in-the-moment experience. Attend a celebrity live broadcast and buy their product without leaving the video stream, talk about a new shoe style in your favorite messaging app, and buy the shoe without leaving the app—that’s the power of headless. 

Power meaningful human connection with new technology

The value of AI, ML, automation, and other disruptive technologies doesn’t lie in efficiency and cost-cutting alone. Consensus seems to be that retailers who are winning right now are already using these tools not to replace the humans, but to enhance existing human connections. With the reduction or elimination of repetitive tasks, sales associates spend more time on the floor becoming true brand ambassadors.

Of these new technologies, voice tools are likely to be among the most transformative. They’re still in the early stages of adoption, but as natural language processing continues to improve and costs continue to drop, there's no question they will have an impact. Imagine a customer rattling off a complex and detailed coffee order to a barista. Now imagine voice technology automatically capturing the order. The barista doesn’t have to struggle to keep up and can focus on creating a meaningful encounter for the customer and identify upselling or cross-selling opportunities.

Voice technology may also prove to be a powerful tool that cuts quickly through overwhelming amounts of data. What if you could ask your favorite reporting tool deep contextual questions and unlock true insights without clicking a mouse? Keyboards have long been considered a very efficient input tool in-store and behind the scenes, but the not-so-distant future could look very different. According to Patrick Gauthier, VP of Amazon Pay, 20% of US customers are likely to make a purchase using voice in the next three years.

Engage employees

To support new technologies and higher-than-ever customer expectations, companies need to create a great employee experience. Stephanie Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company, and Kevin Johnson, President and CEO of Starbucks, used their discussion to focus on how a company culture that nurtures shared experience, understanding, and beliefs can unlock organizational momentum. 

The takeaway is simply that happy and engaged employees help drive sales. Companies with highly engaged associates outperform their competitors by 147% in earnings per share. 2020 looks to be a year where retailers start to turn their focus in-house to ensure their employee experience is every bit as meaningful as their customer experience.