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NRF’s BIG Show 2017: a panellist’s viewpoint

Chris Field
Chris Field

Have you noticed, in the flood of 2017 retails trends articles now on the web, that some pundits are struggling to come up with a coherent list? Now that we are talking about unified commerce, this means that everything is connected to everything – so focusing on the individual components is hard, unless you reference all the others.

Take customer loyalty, for instance. It depends on many touch points; not just simple ‘membership’ schemes, but payment, marketing, in-channel behaviour, x-channel behaviour, affiliate activity, returns. Add to this the fact that different people in different departments are using different processes, systems and measures, and you end up with a level of complexity that the human brain cannot compute, let alone find value in.

Or Marketing. At NRF’s BIG Show 2017, I moderated a session on ‘storyselling’ – the idea that products and stories (or context) must be blended, in order to attract and retain the interest of the consumer right through the basket, and beyond to LCV. It was soon clear that there is no simple recipe for this blend, and that further complications arise from the need to mix content, products, channels, communications and analytics.

One of the reasons that NRF is such a big draw for the retail industry is that it gets into the detail of these of discussions. Rather than just measuring the future of the market, and predicting its worth by 2020, there are sessions across the show’s programme that help retailers, tech vendors, and marketers like me, to understand what will happen next week.

The clues from this year’s NRF came from random quarters…

To paraphrase keynote speaker Richard Branson, if retail isn’t working for you, then get out of retail. This was not what the audience wanted to hear but he had a strong point to make; as the iPod started to kill his Virgin Megastore and Tower Records music retail business, he looked at what consumers wanted instead and the Virgin Mobile business was born. Liberated from the store, the business took off and netted Branson £200m when it was sold to Liberty Global in 2013.

Consider also Shell, which often gets overlooked by analysts, but with 43,000 sites in 70 countries, this is a serious player – and one that recognises that the future is about retailing non-fuel and automotive services. With their deep customer behaviour analysis and investment in the emergence of the tech-enabled car, Shell is constantly reinventing itself to connect to consumers in ways other retailers only dream of.

Now, right there is a trend – retailers looking hard at what defines them and having a rethink. This means that the pop-up concept will start to go mainstream; stores-based retailers emerging as property managers, no longer owning stock but enabling brands and other third parties to use their space more profitably. When the name on everyone lips, Eataly, gets tired, it can reinvent. This is what we should mean by flexibility – not the ability to carry on being what we’ve always been, but morphing into new formats and models.

This signposts the next challenge for tech: building solutions for a landscape that will keep changing in often unpredictable ways. We are all now pretty tired of being told what retail will look like in 10 years, because only one year after we started predicting it’s all turned out to be wrong.

Sometimes, the answer is about applying new tech to old concepts. Chinese online retailer Alibaba provided a 3D bricks-and-mortar New York department store experience on consumers’ smartphones. The virtual reality experience was up for 11 days, and attracted more than 8 million users. Sound familiar? This is exactly what on line shopping looked like in 1998, huge virtual shopping malls renting space to individual retailers. Sometimes, dreaming about the past does equip you for living in the future.

For more insights from NRF’s BIG Show 2017, visit our Retail Connections website

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