On the ground with GDR’s SVP Global Innovation James Mullan, who rounds up the first day of retail’s biggest conference of the year.
Sunday School has never been so interesting. The 107th NRF Big Show kicked off yesterday in an icy cold New York City, where 36,000 attendees from 95 countries huddled together for the first of three days of inspiration, discussion and debate.
After a plenary discussion featuring some of retail’s most disruptive new kids on the block (including Beauty Pie, Museum of Ice Cream, and STORY), it was the turn of GDR CEO Kate Ancketill to challenge a packed auditorium to consider how to reinvent their own businesses.
There was standing room only as Kate declared that the legacy retail machine of western economies is broken. “The large, stable homogenous middle-income audience it was designed for has fragmented,” she explained. “And so the successful retailers of the future will be those that adapt a more expansive definition of what retail actually is.”
Rethinking how to serve customers better
Her point – that companies must adopt ‘Platform Thinking’ and construct a radically modular approach to how they serve and delight their customers – was borne out by the afternoon keynote discussion with Walmart CEO Doug McMillon.
“Retail is about change,” said McMillon, who has helped lead 13 consecutive quarters of growth for Walmart. “The reasons we bought Jet.com and other brands including Bonobos was because they were exciting companies that were re-thinking how to provide a better, more seamless set of solutions for their customers.
“We want to take all the friction out of the Walmart customer experience. This could well mean new vehicles like VR and voice, amongst other exciting channels – but, fundamentally, we won’t be prescriptive, because we have to be flexible enough to continuously adapt in order to serve shoppers better.”
The human touch
Interestingly, set against the broader retail backdrop of digital transformation, machine learning and automation, there was also a focus throughout day one on the increasingly important role played by humans in the shopping and hospitality experience.
Rather than a threat to jobs, several of the biggest players in retail, technology and business made a compelling case for how innovations enabled by AI and robotics will free up consumer-facing staff to focus on creating richer, more authentic, more local connections with their audiences.
“Starbucks sees its digital channels as an extension of our human baristas,” said Shawn Sweeney, VP of Digital at Starbucks. “Just because more and more of our guests order and pay for their coffee through our app, it doesn’t change the fact that humans still have an inherent need for connection, and always will.
“So, in the context of more and more digital, the emphasis we put on the analogue experience at all our Starbucks locations is more important than ever. It’s the smell of the coffee, it’s the authentic personality of our baristas, and it’s the local design and storytelling we are increasingly bringing into our new Roastery formats in Shanghai and elsewhere.”
Walmart, which now operates in 28 countries internationally, announced a raft of improved pay conditions and additional benefits for its US store associates just last week, including expanding parental leave for both parents and adding a new adoption benefit package.
“Retail is a people business,” explained McMillon. “Humanity effects how people feel when they leave one of our stores, and how quickly they feel inclined to come back. So, to achieve this, we need to put our associates first, to empower them to lead us in our culture of change and, ultimately, to make every Walmart shopping journey a happy one.”
Broader and richer experiences
What seems clear is that the best customer experiences of the future will be broader and richer than perhaps we ever imagined – more diverse and expansive, more human and local, and more stimulating and meaningful than legacy retail could ever be.
Excitingly, many of those experiences are yet to be conceived of – and so, for the retailers and brands at the NRF Big Show, their challenge has already been laid.
Visit the GDR blog on Wednesday for James’ round-up of the rest of the BIG Show.