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If CES is the biggest show for tech every January, NRF is the biggest show for all things retail. The National Retail Federation has held the show every year for more than 100 years, helping to address the most pressing topics in the retail industry. This year, those topics are largely defined by the global pandemic.
First up: the nitty gritty. NRF 2021—at least Part One of the show—is being held digitally, as most major shows this past year. NRF’s leadership team has decided to divide the 2021 show into distinct chapters, with January’s being held online and June’s being held live (hopefully) in New York. Both chapters will be led by the theme “Forward Together.” Honestly, a lot could happen between now and June, so I’m going to focus on Chapter 1.
NRF 2021: Chapter 1
Last year, I made the statement that NRF 2020 was also, in many ways, a “tech show.” NRF 2021, on the other hand, while still driven by analytics, data, and software, delivered much more of a human touch. It focused most prominently on the people—leaders, frontline workers, and customers—that drive the retail industry and how to support them in a time of uncertainty and change.
This year’s NRF will focus on six main pillars, or themes. Telling is the fact that all of them seem to focus on the element of extreme change the industry has faced this year as consumers shifted their buying behaviors from in-store to online in major ways.
- Leadership: how to lead and manage the accelerated change happening in the industry this year
- Forward looking growth: How to predict the forward-looking behaviors of consumers moving forward, after the pandemic is over
- New business models: Changing how you create and deliver products and services to survive in the current marketplace
- Customer experience: Better meeting customers, meaningfully, where they are, in the ways they most need you to, in the midst of global uncertainty
- Operations: Optimizing and retooling the supply chain to ensure fewer lapses of things like—I don’t know—toilet paper and hand-sanitizer
- Talent: How to support front-line workers in this period of uncertainty, including not just physical safety but mental health and well-being
Truly, this year’s NRF is about resilience. It’s about reinvention. It’s about the hardcore stories of brand survival—how various companies made it through the hellfire of the past year and how they are, finally, looking forward to better days.
NRF 2021: Trends to Watch
- Surging Digital Channels. It’s no surprise that digital channels have surged in the last year. Online shopping exploded when stores had to shut down, which meant a huge transformation for many brick and mortar locations. Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison shared that the home improvement giant pivoted hard into digital and it paid off. Third quarter sales this year were up 30 percent compared to the same quarter in 2019. But don’t think it will go back down once restrictions ease. Ellison shared that internal research shows that consumers plan to continue with their new online shopping habits.
- Improving the Supply Chain. In 2020, Many retail companies quickly realized that their supply chain was disparate and disconnected making it incredibly difficult to meet consumer demand. One big takeaway from NRF 2021 is improving supply chain connection by turning to technology. Connecting warehouses, orders, shipping, and everything in between to one system allows for a holistic view of a national, if not global, supply chain. I expect to see more technologies this year dedicated to supply chain management specifically for retail companies.
- Omnichannel on steroids. Last year I said omnichannel would be more intertwined in our lives as retailers learned the importance of it. I was definitely on the right track, but no one could have predicted the pandemic and the impact it would have on the omnichannel experience. The name of the game this year was improving customer experience and omnichannel is definitely the way to do that. Retailers turned to software like Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Insights to collect data from multiple sources in order gain better insight into customers — and it paid off. Microsoft announced new upgrades to Dynamics 365 that will enable retailers — both B2B and B2C — to be more agile and grow faster in the coming year. Over the past year, I’ve also seen big investment from Oracle, Adobe, and SAS to strengthen their omnichannel analytics platforms. I am also seeing a strong surge in the cloud driven contact center (Service Cloud) space with companies like Zendesk and ServiceNow among a deepening set of companies rising to solve the 360-customer experience online and off.
- Data, data, data. If there’s an underlying theme of the first three trends, it’s the importance of data. Data from the supply chain, online interactions, sales transactions, and brick and mortar locations when tapped for insights can take a retail organization to the next level. By using CDPs, AI, and machine learning tools from leaders like Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, Treasure Data, Twilio and others, organizations are learning more about their consumers than ever before which means targeting has become more specific. This will also lead to a push of integrations that can tie everything from data warehouses from the likes of Cloudera, Snowflake, AWS, and Azure to feed real-time data into CRM and CX systems—ideally even handling data enrichment with ML, AI, and Automation. This can almost go without saying, but I’m certain that if retailers don’t get on the data train this year they will be left behind by year’s end.
- Retail specific clouds. All of that data has to be store somewhere. While many organizations might use multiple clouds and other storage solutions, these aren’t built with retail in mind. Microsoft is ready to change that with their retail specific cloud that will help organizations store and mine insights from a variety of platforms — this could be a real gamechanger. SAP continues to heavily invest in its “Industry Cloud” initiative in 2021, with Retail among its key focus areas.
NRF 2021 Chapter One is only the beginning of what’s to come this year. With digital transformation happening at such a rapid pace for retailers, they have to adapt to survive. The trends that were on display this week will definitely help them do that. I can’t wait to see what comes next when we get to NRF 2021 more tech focused chapter in June.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.