My 2020 has been kicked off with NRF 2020, one of the world's largest retail conferences. In the 3-day international event held in New York, USA, a lot of exhibitors and speakers ranging from key stakeholders in the famous brands to engineers building state-of-the-art AI/IoT systems got together and shared their challenges and solutions.
When I entered the venue, I was just surprised at how big NRF is; there were three floors dedicated to the Expo, and everywhere was so crowded!
Here are key takeaways I got from the event:
- The industrial trend is clearly in "customer" (e.g., customer data, customer experience, customer insights).
- Following the end of retail apocalypse, brands are now focusing on seamless digital-physical customer experience, especially for the millennials who require retailers to conduct hyper-personalization and effective storytelling.
- At Expo, many point solution vendors were helping the brand's specific problems (e.g., in-store face recognition, demand forecasting, supply chain optimization, customer data management). On the other hand, I saw only a few platform solutions which allow us to integrate the physical and digital world in one place.
The very first session I've attended was a keynote talk by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella. He nicely reviewed emerging topics in the retail industry such as personalization, intelligent supply chain, and retailtainment. To effectively and efficiently overcome the real-world challenges including everywhere commerce and data silo, he introduced various Microsoft solutions and their client's use cases:
- Azure AI for recommendation @ Starbucks
- Azure Synapse for data management and optimization @ Walgreens
- PromoteIQ for digital commerce marketing @ Home Depot
- Microsoft Teams @ IKEA
Overflow seating was also packed! I wasn't able to have a seat...
While I personally felt these are just MS's product showcase sessions, it was great to see how successful retailers are collecting and utilizing data to obtain real-time insights and enabling intelligent retail at scale.
On the third day of the event, I also got a chance to attend morning keynote sessions. Here, a new president of the NRF foundation recalled the destructive innovations that happened over the past few years, and he strongly stated that retail apocalypse will never happen again.
In a conversation between Jo Ling Kent, NBC News and Erik Nordstrom, Nordstrom mentioned a fact that 34% of Nordstrom sales have come from digital in 2019 Q3. The number suggests that filling disruption between online shopping and in-store experience is important, and they've been working a lot to provide better shopping experience; helping to find items in an online basket at store, buying online & picking up at store — these are the simple examples connecting the digital and physical world.
Nordstrom additionally pointed out the importance of telling a brand story to reach out to the millennials. Meanwhile, he said the company is now aiming to improve inventory systems (e.g., transportation, store pickup, reselling) across the US so that they can increase the selection of next-day fast delivery.
After the talk, I visited Nordstrom Local in NYC, a new type of Nordstrom's store that makes online order pickup and returns easier, to get a sense of future.
Another keynote talk by Deloitte and Under Armour emphasized the similar points in terms of online vs offline purchase and personalized seamless experience. It is obvious that the industry nowadays needs to consider something beyond the product itself — yes, that's the customer.
Everyone cares about customers
One notable observation is that everyone has mentioned "customer experience" in their talk.
Collecting customer feedback — Collecting customers' voice can be an important first step to optimize the customer experience. To give an example, HappyOrNot provides a simple way to collect customer feedback, and their solution gives actionable insights based on the survey results. In fact, many service providers are trying to collect NPS (Net Promoter Score) from their customers, but how to take actions based on the feedback is not trivial. In their speaking session, speakers alternatively showed the HappyOrNot solution for effectively measuring customer satisfaction.
Getting customer insights — More importantly, feedback is not the only customer information we can get, and a collection of diverse customer data could be a great asset to run retail business; customer experience relies heavily on retailer's customer understanding, and more data gives a deeper understanding of the customers. Here, Customer Data Platform (CDP) can provide a deeply satisfying way to get customer data in a timely fashion, make the data clean and trustable, monitor the customer behaviors, and optimize campaigns. For instance, Sun & Ski Sports demonstrated their use of AgilOne's CDP solution, and the story ends up with 50% revenue improvement on their winter campaign.
Improving customer experience — In terms of online & offline store execution, what Nike spoke with their partner Zalando summarizes the key points very well. According to them, the recent innovations make a big change in three areas, (1) storytelling, (2) physical and digital experiences, (3) convenience, and I can confidently say these are the common challenges many retailers are equally facing. For the first innovation zone, the rise of social networks and mobile applications enable brands to efficiently and effectively deliver their message & philosophy to the end customers. Meanwhile, as a customer journey moves back and forth between online and offline, we'll realize the importance of providing seamless shopping experience based on digital-physical connected systems, which leverage advanced AI/ML and IoT technologies. Eventually, innovation surrounding inventory management and supply chain plays a crucial role to make the modern, complex shopping experience more convenient (e.g., same-day shipment, online order pickup).
As I summarized above, the largest retail conference told us that the industry now strongly customer-focused, and the recent technological innovations provide many different ways to improve customer satisfaction. The retailers are aggressively trying to understand their customers and optimize their experiences both online and offline, and a wide variety of solution providers help the efforts in different ways. From the data perspective, in particular, building a single truth of customer data is an important challenge to accurately capture customer behaviors and efficiently take actions based on the insights.
It should be noted that "employee" is another trending area for retailers. There were several solutions for helping workforce management and making employees more comfortable. Employee to customer, factory and inventory to store, offline to online — there are many innovation areas to be connected at any point of end-to-end retail lifecycle. Excited to see a rapid evolution of the industry from now on!
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Last updated: 2022-01-18
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. With a decade of experience at start-up companies and Big Tech ranging from full-stack/machine-learning engineering to data science to product management, I am currently working at the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications.
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