Key Takeaways From Key Thought Leaders from NRF 2024
Retail and 2024 are both in full swing, and both the year and commerce kicked off at the National Retail Federation in New York City in early January. This is always a vibrant, engaging and important whirlwind for me… and an experience I look forward to every year. After all, as a self-described retail geek, I get giddy when it comes to exploring the latest retail technology, exploring flagship stores that keep up with collective retail trends and discovering new resources that help fuel the global commerce industry at large.
My favorite part, however, is always the people.
Sure, AI is fun to explore. And parcel management, supply chain, inventory analytics and so much more. But you know what is almost more exhilarating? Hearing well respected leaders explain why they value AI or other technologies that are bringing retail to life. And this past trip to NRF in NYC was no exception.
In some conversations with my friends at Splunk leading up to NRF, I wanted to dig deeper into how retail leaders are actually leveraging AI and other emerging retail tech in their upcoming road maps.
Kicking off the week, I was grateful to return as a judge to the Vendor In Partnership Awards at the iconic Gotham Hall in Midtown. Joining me were companies that included Salesforce, ParcelLab, Slalom, Store Force, Big Commerce, Maropost and more. I always consider this evening the celebratory kick-off to NRF Week, and I was joined by industry leaders that included Vicki Cantrell, Ron Thurston, Rob Garf, Stacey Berns and many others.
Thurston, best-selling Author of the book Retail Pride, shared with me that evening what I also echo.
“The real core of a great retail experience is people,” Thurston stated.
Expanding on this, Thurston elaborated that while people brings retail to life, technology helps keep it there.
“There is a lot of conversations about staffing challenges, such as how do we have the right people at the right place at the right time. It’s an old mantra but it’s never been more urgent. There’s new tech that is doing on demand retail staffing. It’s like uber for retail work. Additionally, I am gearing up to launch a retail matchmaking platform called Ossy to help support this need, as well,” Thurston explained.
Georganne Bender, a retail thought leader and consumer anthropologist, wasn’t quite as interested in technology when reflecting on what retail needs to see in the year ahead but rather the merchandising in stores.
“Retailers should update their merchandising. Stores here in New York City have been a mess and throughout 2023, I felt the same way. The goal should be making customers want to shop and pick up not just one thing, but two, three things. And not from off the floor, which is where I often see apparel these days. In 2024, I think retailers need to up their standards for merchandising.”
Speaking of standards, The Retail Doctor, Bob Phibbs, shared with me that “anyway you can train an employee to engage a customer is important. Smart retailers will blend this with their traditional trainings.”
I couldn’t agree more. After all, employees are the front-facing reflection of brands to consumers. Training really does elevate stronger in-store experiences, and this often overlaps with many facets of technology, such as security.
“I think we have an old school way of locking everything up in stores, especially in metro areas, but when you think about that, the threat is often internal theft. So where is that coming from? Smart retailers will realize it’s not more locks and more friction to the shopping experience that is the answer, it’s valuing employees, training them better and start looking at this from the eyes of the customer.”
Another area of interest that Splunk and I identified leading into this year’s NRF was, of course, the issue of security in the retail landscape.
As a consumer myself – a perk we can all relate to – having trust in engaging with retailers both in-stores and online is important to me. A discussion I had again and again while at NRF was how reliability and security when processing transactions and sharing personal data with merchants is critical in 2024… and certainly beyond. Threats are always lurking, but retailers need to give consumers trust that those threats won’t be an issue to them. Ultimately, this trust needs to be no matter where a consumer engages with a merchant – particularly as more digital destinations are becoming transaction opportunities.
Expanding on the importance of trust and reliability was Sean Quinn, CEO of All Point Retail.
“When it comes to security in 2024, the combination of AI algorithms with video and then software such as point of sale and order management is truly fascinating. The combination of those three together can grab data points with physical activity and then notifications so that what is out of the ordinary from a security perspective can quickly be caught. Truly fascinating stuff,” Quinn shares.
Fascinating is a great word to not just describe how AI is influencing security through order management and point of sale, but reallly all of what was discovered at NRF. One of the things I kept seeing reinforced again and again as I explore the floor was the importance of digital connectivity through multiple touch points of commerce, including social selling, email marketing, SMS text marketing and more. Another point that came up? Phone calls.
Yes, phone calls.
Consumers like immediate gratification, and often that means picking up their phones and calling someone to help them on a purchase inquiry, return or other area of interest. And while many of these call systems are managed by AI, they are still delivering a human-like experience that consumers value.
Another value for consumers that retail thought leader and CNBC contributor Stacey Widlitz, who shared with me her thoughts on what’s ahead in retail when it comes to delivery of online purchases.
“I think one of the biggest issues in 2024 will be returns. Who hasn’t seen their package stolen from their front porch at this point? In 2024, I think a big retail trend we will see is insurance for returns. Research shows that customers are willing to pay up to 10% of the value of their package to make sure that if someone steals it, they can get a replacement quickly and easily without fighting with the retailer or brand,” Widlitz explained.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a week of retail without considering trends in actual inventory in the year ahead. I was fortunate to share an evening with various retail leaders whom shared their perspectives on growth and changes among product categories, and wellness certainly dominated the conversations. While their immediate comments were off the record in respect to the intimacy of the evening, leaders that included Martha Stewart and others were primarily very positive about the opportunities in the year ahead.
As for my own final thoughts?
Retail welcomes the opportunity for companies and the people who represent them to shine thanks in a huge part to technology. Settling for average won’t keep consumers coming back, so from a retail perspective, it’s critical to embrace the changes and opportunities in which technology offers. Then it is up to each respective company and it’s leaders to truly elevate their businesses through a combination of technology and the people that represent them.