NRF Big Show: All roads lead to… the store

The NRF January 2014 Big Show was bigger than ever – physically, as in, the WHOLE Javits Convention Center in New York City. And after a few days there, l felt as if I had walked all 760,000 square feet (a little over 13 American football fields’ worth) of it. My #1 suggestion for the NRF organisers for next year (short of moving to a warmer venue) is to establish thematic areas inside of the exhibit space so that people who have particular interests can spend less time walking and more time talking. But rumour has it that the trade organisation is planning to keep the floor opened an extra day next year, ostensibly so that we can all get our exercise in and work off those lavish New York dinners. It’s all good.

Despite the size of the exhibit hall and the chaotic layout, what struck me most was that the aggregate theme of everything exhibited was that it’s time to reinvigorate the store. Whether a specific demonstration was about closing the loop between analytics and operations, assisted shopping, visual displays, merchandise management, digital marketing, traffic tracking or network connectivity – or virtually anything else, the message was “the time is now to bring the store into the 21st century.”

That might seem obvious, but consider this: for the last several years, the industry has been obsessing about customer enablement (principally via smart mobile devices) as well as one possible outcome of that enablement – showrooming. Last year, the question was repeatedly raised throughout the industry, “what is the future role of the store?” Now the answer seems obvious: to be a 21st century store. While talking to one of the NRF’s senior execs as we were collecting our coats at closing time, she observed that “it’s nothing new”. But she also went on to say that “it’s always about keeping the store relevant, isn’t it? People like to shop. The difference is that they want a different experience than before!”

What does 'reinvigorate the store’ mean? Three tasks

Although this is by no means an exhaustive list of “to dos” for retailers who want to be Winners in today’s global and fiercely competitive environment, here are three specific themes that were on prominent display at NRF’s 2014 Big Show event:

Reinvigorate task #1: Get information into the hands of those who want or need it – in the store

Retailers have come to accept that consumers begin their shopping experience outside of the store. But they are also getting past their panic about “the Amazon effect”, and are focusing not on redefining a new role for the store, but rather on how to enable the store to fulfil its mission in the context of a digitally enabled world. That’s different than in times past, when consumers and employees both found most of the information about products in the products themselves (how they looked, felt, fit, tasted, were made, how much they cost, etc.). Now, that kind of information is readily available digitally, and than means that it has to be available on the sales floor to help customers make the right choices, and employees to offer the appropriate levels of service.

That was theme the of exhibits that showed off next generation mobile technologies (eg. Motorola), mobile integration (eg. Starmount), pervasive hi-speed connectivity to the stores (or example, Cisco and Hughes Networks); predictive analytics and actionable insights (BI solutions providers like SAP, IBM, Oracle, SAS, Manthan, and many others), or even digital displays (eg. Intel) and next-generation POS platforms (Toshiba’s booth was so crowded that I thought they might be passing out the alcohol a little early, but it turns out that they were showing off their latest TCx Wave and TCx Flight store technologies). The most fun booth of the whole show had to be Lexmark/AccessVia – but behind the superheroes and great Seattle coffee was a portfolio of solutions that makes paper-based information usable in the digital domain in new ways, so that it can be leveraged more effectively by more people – in the store.

Renvigorate task #2: Make information actionable, timely, in-context, accurate, and ‘consumable’ by someone without a PhD in data analytics

Despite the exuberance for information shown at the expo, drowning the stores with floods of real-time data doesn’t make much sense, however. After all, consumers don’t have more time in their lives – they probably have less. And employees are busy (even if, as RSR’s May 2013 benchmark report, The Relevant Store in the Digital Age suggested, they are spending too much time on things that consumers don’t care about, such as paperwork and administrative tasks). We saw in our recently published report, Retail Analytics Moves To the Frontline, that retailers want insights to be delivered in a “consumable” way – visually and as “alerts”, and often on mobile devices.

Companies such as SAP, IBM, Oracle, and SAS are all very focused on this, and they showed off their capabilities at the event. But also prominently exhibited was another kind of visual information –how companies were using the actionable power of video, whether for loss prevention, merchandising and replenishment, or customer service (the Cisco and Intel exhibits were full of examples, as were the big portfolio companies like JDA, Manhattan, and of course SAP, IBM, and Oracle).

Reinvigorate Task #3: Make it fun

Information alone isn’t enough to reinvigorate the store of course, even if it’s the right information delivered in the right way. Retailers at the event seemed to have remembered the fundamental truth that people like to shop, or as I prefer to say it, “shopping is (or should be) fun!”

My favourite demonstration of that was at the IBM booth, when I was walked through a “future” shopping experience, but other solutions providers such as Microsoft, Dell, HP, and Intel, had technologies on display that are intended to make shopping fun – in a 21st century context. And that means a lot of visual stimulation for consumers.

An unexpected A-ha!

One of the things that people in the “research & advisory” industry get asked all the time is, “what did you see that was new?” Here’s my unexpected surprise of the show: AT&T. Yup, you read that right – AT&T. I almost missed them; in fact, my partner Paula Rosenblum txt’ed me and asked me if I wanted to join her at the end of the day – it wasn’t even on my calendar. Despite the fact that AT&T is a BIG company, at the NRF show they were hidden off to the side in a little 10X10 booth. And like many, I tend to peg AT&T narrowly into one of two categories: they either supply phone services, or they supply wide area connectivity. But during our meeting with them, the AT&T folks reminded us that they are true omnichannel retailers – and fully integrated to boot. Their offerings span eCommerce, stores, mobile, the home (TV), and customer call centres. They offer on-demand enterprise functionality to other companies as well via “the cloud”. Without belabouring the point, AT&T recently has done a lot of work to integrate all their services into one brand experience. And now they want to share that with other retailers as well. That was a big surprise!

Bottom line: It’s the store, stupid

With apologies (or at least a nod) to Bill Clinton’s 1994 US presidential campaign call-to-arms, retail is about getting the basics right. But societies and cultures change, and its time for the stores to change too. The good news is that all the “digital enablement” needed to make that happen in a 21st century context exist and are available. And that, plain and simple, was what I took home from NRF.

This article originally appeared on the RSR Research website at It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.