The exhibit floor at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show was a cornucopia of technological innovation, packed with exhibitors showing off the latest robots, kiosks and mobile point-of-sale solutions, as well as scads of artificial intelligence applications designed to help retailers do everything from addressing theft within their stores to better forecasting their inventory needs.
There was also plenty of evidence at the show that all the digital and mechanical marvels on display are really just tools to be used by the people who, for now at least, still play the central role in determining whether a retail business succeeds or fails.
The themes of human perseverance, ingenuity and connection ran through the event.
Take Lowe’s chairman and chief executive officer, Marvin Ellison, who was honored with the NRF Foundation’s The Visionary award.
Ellison’s own rise from being a part-time associate making $4.35 an hour at a Target store in Memphis to serving as CEO at two Fortune 500 companies (J.C. Penney and now Lowe’s) was not the steady and straightforward path that description might suggest, he said, noting that as a Black man without an elite education or the help of mentors or backers at the companies where he worked, his advance was mainly due to a willingness to work hard and take on tough assignments.
In fact, at every job he has taken in the past 25 years, including his current one, his predecessor was either fired or pushed out.
“That means you’re on nobody’s succession plan.”
Ellison is credited with building great people at Lowe’s, and says the company’s success has been the result of that.
Target chairman and CEO Brian Cornell, who was last year’s Visionary honoree, took the stage “joined by four amazing female Target leaders,” as he described them: Kiera Fernandez, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer; Alexis Sheppert, group vice president of stores for Virginia/North Carolina; Cara Sylvester, executive vice president and chief guest experience officer; and Christina Hennington, executive vice president and chief growth officer.
“This is really our culture in action,” Cornell said, noting that one-third of the company’s board of directors and half of its leadership team are female, and nearly half of Target’s more than 2,000 stores are led by women.
One of the four executives on stage with Cornell, Fernandez, told the story of a Black woman from the U.K. who, while on a business trip to the United States, visited a Target store and was moved by some ballerina Christmas ornaments she found there, some of which depicted dancers with skin tones similar to her daughters’.
“These moments don’t just happen by chance,” Fernandez said. “They happen because our culture of care and our core value of inclusivity run deep in all of us. And by all of us, I mean all 400,000 team members. It absolutely shows up authentically to our guests. When our guests feel seen, when they feel heard, when they feel cared for, that all adds up to more joy in their lives, which is what we’re all here to do.”
The value of that kind of human perspective in retailing makes sense. Shoppers are people too.
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