3 Surprising Retail Trends That Emerged From NRF’s Big Show

It’s not all AI and blockchain

Experts are seeing retailers go back to the basics this year. Getty Images
Headshot of Ann-Marie Alcántara

The National Retail Federation (NRF)’s conference last week featured the usual gadgets and gizmos to show attendees the future of retail. Buzzwords like AI and blockchain abounded at panels and in booths. And while some of the news to come out of the conference, like Giant Food Stores unveiling “Marty” the somewhat adorable robot, was interesting, not everything was.

That’s partly why some trends, like personalization and digital transformation, stood out more than others for some attendees. Here are takeaways these industry insiders identified during conference:

Personalization and customer experience are still key

Personalization and customer experience aren’t exactly flashy, but both are seeing modern upgrades. Pravin Pillai, global head of industry solutions, retail at Google Cloud, said in-store tools like vision based analytics or robotics are part of delivering a good customer experience.

“Things like [BOPIS or same day delivery] are taken for granted by consumers [but] require a lot of operational dexterity on the backend for the retailer and these technologies are enabling them to do those things,” Pillai said.

Katrina Gosek, senior director, product strategy at Oracle, said “going back to the basics” around personalization is important for retailers who don’t understand how to target consumers efficiently with the right promotion or a good loyalty program.

“I think those building—we’re not finished there yet,” Gosek said. “AI is a cool theme to talk about, but I still think personalization is a big challenge for a lot of customers.”

Part of that involves innovation around robotics, which Gosek said a lot of startups around supply chain and logistics are starting to form—all of which ultimately loops back to creating a memorable customer experience.

Reimagining the purpose of a store

Retail was never really dead, but how it functions and what it can do for consumers is changing. Rob Garf, vp of industry strategy and insights at Salesforce, said he’s seeing more retailers think about digital transformation and “the role of the store.” Different solutions will work better for different stores. For example, a drive-thru to pick up product works better for a grocery store than a store that has activities for kids while parents shop.

“I’ve heard the word experience, destination, and [in] talking to a bunch of customers, they’re really thinking about how does [the store] fit into the consumer’s daily life, so it’s not just a discreet ‘I need to go and pick something up,’” Garf said.

Luke Droulez, CMO at bedding company Parachute, said figuring out how to infuse technology into the store is another aspect that’s changing in the industry. New products around tracking customers in stores with facial recognition or eye tracking are on the rise, as is creating a “robust” omnichannel network so the store “doesn’t feel like a lagging piece of technology.”

“Everything that you can do online [is] increasingly able to [be done] offline,” Droulez said. “And I think that companies that are best able to take that and align it with online sales could potentially new gains or new learnings.”

Is this the year for voice commerce?

Every year, the hype around voice commerce rises. But this year, the growing number of people who own such devices from Amazon or Google suggests it’s time for retailers to figure out what they can do with these products, Gosek said.

“There’s so many devices out there that can offer an experience to purchase goods or interact with the brand we’ve been leveraging,” Gosek said.

The year is just getting started so expect to hear more about these trends as retailers continue to figure out what to give consumers.

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@itstheannmarie annmarie.alcantara@adweek.com Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter for Adweek, focusing on direct-to-consumer brands and ecommerce.