As more than 30,000 retail and e-commerce professionals — and those who sell to them — descend upon New York for retail’s marquee trade show next week, it’s time again for that annual question: Who’s minding the store?
In fact, the National Retail Federation’s Big Show is all about minding the store — and minding it at a time when Amazon, technology and evolving consumer habits are changing the retail world with blinding speed and in unexpected ways. By its very nature, the Big Show covers a broad range of subjects from better barcodes to building more sophisticated systems for locating brick-and-mortar stores. But looking through the agenda of talks and presentations it’s clear that one strong theme will be the need for retailers to adapt, adopt, iterate and move quickly in order to compete or even survive.
If you're going to NRF
Stay hydrated. Wear comfortable shoes: It’s a marathon not a sprint.
Speaking of which: Start with a list of the speeches and sessions you want to attend. Be flexible. Some will be filled. Others won’t be what you expect. Have alternatives in mind.
Schedule down time: You’ve heard about the fire hose of information. At NRF, it’s on. Try to sit out a round of sessions to gather your thoughts.
Have the curiosity to explore the small booths on the expo floor, because often the most innovative stuff is coming out of those small booths.
When networking, go for deep connections rather than many connections.
And at the core of that nimble dance is technology and innovation.
“I’ve been going through a couple of pieces where people are saying what to expect,’” says Carl Boutet, a Montreal-based retail strategist. “It should almost be called the big analytics show and not the big retail show. Eighty percent of what’s there seems to be tied somehow to analytics, basically number crunching, solutions that help you better figure out who is coming into your store, why they’re coming there and what to do with them.”
In part the scramble is prompted by the sheer number of companies promising to offer insights, optimization and more successful sales, both in-stores and online. (The show will feature 540 exhibitors on two massive expo floors.) And in part it is prompted by the ominous online behemoth holed up in Seattle.
While Amazon is notably absent from the keynotes, roundtables and networking sessions at NRF, that hardly means that the retail giant’s presence won’t be keenly felt throughout the cavernous Javits Center stretching along the Hudson River.
“I think the issue that people are thinking about is problem No. 1: How are people going to compete against Amazon,” says Lauren Freedman, founder of the Chicago-based etailing group. ”Whether they had a good Christmas or a bad Christmas, they’re thinking it’s a challenge in a lot of ways, in a lot of categories.”
Start with the news that Amazon captured nearly one-quarter of the $94 million year-over-year increase in e-commerce holiday spending, according to a Macquarie Group analyst. Add to that the fact that a BloomReach survey found that 44 percent of online shoppers start their product searches on Amazon, more than start their searches on search engines or on individual retailers’ sites. And you can see why Amazon remains a ferocious force to be reckoned with.
Sure, NRF comes with formal speeches, panels and workshops — more than 80 of them, in fact, during the three-and-a-half-day convention — but Freedman’s Amazon answer came when I asked what show-goers would be talking about in the corridors and over coffee, lunch and beers.
Beyond Amazon, she says, she’d expect to hear a lot about mobile, which has been a topic of discussion for years now. But the recent holiday season came with indications that mobile might be moving mainstream faster than some had anticipated. And mobile is the key linchpin to combining online and in-store shopping into one seamless excursion for consumers, Boutet and Freedman agree. The idea is one that will get plenty of stage time at NRF.
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Granted, there are battlefield shopping conditions during the holiday season that lend themselves to mobile, but the rise in smartphone conversions at least raises the question of whether digital commerce is reaching the mobile tipping point.
“Everybody knows there is more mobile traffic,” Freedman says. “So depending on what stage your mobile business is in, you’ve got to figure out where do you go from here and what do you prioritize.”
As for the talk about creating seamless excursions for shoppers — omnichannel is the word at events like the Big Show — Boutet, general manager for Mega Group’s New Retail Venture, says it’s a natural outgrowth of the evolution of retail analytics online.
“In the last 10 years, you find 90 percent of our retail innovation has been inspired by what’s happened online. And a big chunk of that is this whole capacity to measure and analyze and track,” he says. “Now we’re trying to find that manifestation in the store. And that’s really what I’m looking for: What solutions are out there that can make those two as transparent or seamless as possible. That’s the golden egg, right there. No one has cracked it yet.”
But who knows? With 30,000-plus people, 575 vendors pitching solutions and a convention center that is a small town unto itself, it’s possible that the answer is out there at NRF — somewhere.
Photo of NRF Big Show by Mike Cassidy.
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @mkecassidy.