Digital disruption in retail on display at NRF Big Show

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As the plane descended into New York’s LaGuardia Airport I was thinking about what awaited at the 2018 NRF Big Show. This year I was attending with two very distinct lenses, one seeking to gain greater perspective on the role of digital and innovation and their impact on traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, hearing from amongst the industry best, ranging from digital startups through to established companies and, two, representing a leading prescriptive analytics company as a board advisor.

This year the conference was thought provoking, and it ignited a significant amount of dialogue on the future of the industry. I enjoyed reconnecting with many peers and colleagues over the three days. I learnt that this NRF conference had the largest attendance in its history not only by attendees from the U.S. but also by attendees from around the world, a truly international view on retail. Congratulations to NRF president and chief executive officer Matthew Shay, his team, and the NRF board for delivering an outstanding event.

As I reflect on the three days at NRF, here are my learnings and experiences:

Andre Persaud

Andre Persaud

We as retailers are in a vibrant industry that is going through rapid change and disruption. The role of mobile in the customer experience is first and foremost vital. This is driven by the imperative of a seamless convenience interaction for her. For organizations that are still debating the need for a mobile-first strategy, she may have already moved on. It was clear that organizations that have made mobile a priority in their engagement with her are winning and should win for the long term.

I was extremely impressed by the sophistication of the many startup digital-first businesses that have entered into the retail space. These entrepreneurs have taken everyday issues and leveraged digital-first solutions to transform the customer experience. It is highly recommended that traditional retailers spend more time understanding how these startups could capture share of wallet as they scale and impact their business.

It is quite evident that the use of data is now well beyond traditional utilization. Organizations across the world are using prescriptive analytics, machine learning and some artificial intelligence to gain insights and interact with their customers. I was impressed by how some companies are embracing the use of sophisticated data to interact with customers on the path to purchase. It was exciting to hear how one of the largest suppliers in the apparel space is utilizing data and digital to reduce the purchase cycle by as much as 50%.

I was captivated by the Innovation Lab exhibits and saw that what was only imaginable yesterday is available today for retailers to embrace. It will be vital for all retailers to think how they integrate prescriptive analytics, machine learning and ultimately artificial intelligence to have the speed to compete and help to define their brand. It also means significant involvement by boards and the C-suite to assess roles, organization structure going forward and how to engage the organization in new ways of working.

One big underlying theme on this transformation journey was the role of partners and forging new relationships well beyond the traditional retailer/supplier relationship. Today’s ecosystem is much more complex, and gaining these partnerships with adjacent players will be important moving forward to complete the customer experience.

The theme of organizations having a profoundly larger role in social responsibility was quite strong throughout the conference. Today’s customer wants to interact with retailers that not only provide a great experience but also have a social compass on the world around them. I was very moved by two sessions in this area, one on clean water and one on the story of an entrepreneur about how he transformed the yogurt industry whilst taking care of people and communities.

As a father of a seven-year-old daughter, I always seek to show her female role models apart from her mom that are in positions of leadership across business, sports, science and politics. It was impressive to see and hear from the many women in the retail C-suite for both large and small companies. This was motivating, and I am excited by the impact this will have for the next generation of retail leaders.

I took the opportunity to see presentations from retailers around the world. It is quite clear that there are some outstanding best practices and new perspectives. I gained more insights on how retail has exploded in China and how the Chinese consumer shops in a truly omnichannel manner.

As I think about what the next year may bring, I am excited by how our industry is so energetic and exciting as it is undergoing this transformational change. Boards and C-level leaders will need to adapt and think of new ways to engage both their customers and their organizations. Whilst there is tremendous respect for how retail has emerged as an industry, the customer is driving quantum change on expectations and experience across all channels and sectors. I don’t think any business or sector is immune to this change. With such disruption and excitement in retail, I am proud to be part of this industry, and I look forward to being part of this fast ­evolution.

Andre Persaud is a senior industry executive and business advisor.


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