GDR’s key takeaways from NRF 2021

Jan 28, 2021

GDR CEO Kate Ancketill picks out what surprised her, and what didn’t, at this year’s new look NRF 2021 Chapter One.

This year’s iteration of the world’s biggest retail conference, NRF 2021, was like no other I’ve taken part in before. The sprawling trade stalls and auditoriums of the Javits Centre in New York were swapped for a virtual stage, with the 40,000 global retailers watching the keynotes and engaging with each other from the comfort of their own homes.

The new format allowed me to watch more of my fellow speakers than ever before. As I tuned in every day I found myself nodding along in agreement with what many were saying, but I was also surprised about what no one seemed to be talking about at all.

These are the four things that really stood out to me at NRF 2021:


1) Future-proofed brands were the big winners

Ulta’s Glam Lab AR tool

Anyone who has watched my retail trends keynote from the event (Retail’s hard reset: How cataclysmic events accelerate trends, transformation and innovation) will know that I think the problems facing retailers, both before and because of the pandemic, were entirely predictable. As I said: “It should not take a cataclysmic event to force what we knew we should have been doing all along.”

Coming from this perspective, it was no great surprise to me to hear which brands were positioned as the big success stories of NRF 2021; it is those who were prepared for the future having invested in advanced omnichannel integration, social activations, e-commerce and click-and-collect logistics.


GDR’s key take outs from NRF 2021


Kelly Mahoney, Vice President of Customer Marketing at Ulta Beauty, explained how its 30 million rewards members and its virtual try-on AR experience enabled it to win last year, even when most of its stores were closed. The data from its loyalty scheme enabled it to suggest replenishment and new products when it thought previous purchases would be running out, while the pre-existing Glam Lab AR tool was leveraged to allow at-home customers to virtually try-on these products. Glam Lab engagement grew by 900% in 2020 as Ulta’s future-focused infrastructure allowed it to continue to deliver to its customers.

This sentiment was echoed by Niraj Shah, CEO of furniture and homewares retailer Wayfair, which went from strength to strength in 2020 as consumers increased focus on the design and utility of their homes. It was interesting to hear him suggest that Wayfair simply wouldn’t have been able to cope, had it not been for its team of 3,500 data scientists and tech engineers constantly striving to improve and future-proof all areas of the business. He said: “Ecom is a tough business: you have to be great at everything, like a well-balanced athlete. The big thing I saw during the pandemic was that all our ongoing work helped us to deal with the unknowns. If we hadn’t already planned for it all along, we would not have been able to catch up in a crisis.”


2) Consumers really embraced the switch to digital (perhaps more than retailers anticipated!)


For many retailers, it was the pandemic experience that finally forced them to roll out the omnichannel strategies that they’d been tentatively mulling over for years. One of the perceived barriers was how quickly consumers would embrace and value these digitally-led new approaches, so it was fascinating to hear retailers say they were surprised by the positive reaction they saw.

The CEO of Suitsupply, Fokke de Jong, said he’d been amazed at how many customers wanted to book appointments to visit the store, and to speak to stylists before their visit so that recommended items could be ready for them in the changing rooms. He praised this ‘radically personal’ approach and claimed it to be a proof that “retail is still about the detail.”


GDR’s key take outs from NRF 2021

Krista Bourne of Verizon also revealed that it had 1.4 million appointments booked last year for in-store tech support and customer service.

This is what personalisation looks like in the real world!


3) The physical store still has a role to play in retail’s omnichannel future

Iope Lab

My keynote presentation featured several pureplayers opening physical retail spaces to do all the things digital can’t do. It included Iope’s laboratory store in Seoul, Shopline’s content media hub and click and collect space in Hong Kong and On Running’s product trial-focused flagship in New York. While it’s important to admit that the role of the physical store has changed forever, I’m pleased to reveal that I wasn’t the only speaker talking about the important position they will still play in the omnichannel retail of the future.

While discussing the success of digital luxury fashion sales during the pandemic, Saks President and CEO Marc Metrick made sure to add: “Stores are still important, especially in luxury retail. People want the theatre. Digital is important, but it’s uplifted when our stores are open.”


GDR’s key take outs from NRF 2021


Lululemon was another of the great success stories discussed at NRF 2021. It moved into services with its acquisition of connected fitness platform Mirror last July and is one of the few predominantly female-run retailers, having just appointed its first female CFO, while 70% of its leadership team and 55% of its board of directors are women. It’s a forward-thinking, tech-savvy company, but Celeste Burgoyne, its President, Americas and Global Guest Innovation, still sees the value in its stores. She said: “There’s a real behaviour shift to digital. We don’t think this will go away. Our emphasis is on omnichannel but we do really believe in physical retail and continue to evolve that experience.”

I mentioned Ulta’s digital success earlier, but it’s also innovating in its store estate with a shop-in-shop partnership with Target that looks like a win-win scenario for both parties.

Finally, Indra Nooyi, ex CEO of Pepsico is predicting that post-vaccine there will be huge pent-up demand for retail, as well as travel, theatre and downtown. Quoting sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s book ‘How to build a more equal and United society’ she said that coffee shops and restaurants will be ‘palaces of the people’ again.


4) Responses to the climate emergency were few and far between

Selfridge’s London

In my keynote I shared the thoughts of circular economy expert and GDR Assembly Panel member Pippa Corry, who warns that “Covid-19 is the fire drill for the big climate emergency to come.” Whilst the climate emergency was certainly covered in some talks, I was surprised it wasn’t addressed in many others.

Indra Nooyi did say “there’s way, way too much plastic about now to keep shipping it around and putting it in landfills.” But I wasn’t struck by a sense of urgency across the board.

It’s only natural that the ongoing global health crisis has meant that pandemic responses and omnichannel strategies were front of mind this year, but I anticipate seeing a more ubiquitous focus on radical sustainability initiatives as we move beyond Covid.


Find out how GDR can help your business

If you’d like to find out more about any of these themes, or you’re interested in Kate presenting her trends keynote to your team, get in touch with GDR’s Managing Director Rachel on

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