Takeaways from the NRF Big Show 2018

Jan 17, 2018

Having soaked up three days of talks, walked some 41,837 steps and accumulated more than 40 business cards at the NRF Big Show in New York, GDR’s James Mullan reflects on the major themes of this year’s event.

If I had to sum up the biggest talking points that cropped up again and again across much of what I saw, there mainly appears to be two perceived routes to success that many of the world’s biggest retailers are seeking to leverage in order to drive change:

  1. Establish the right culture and vision
  2. Learn from an ecosystem of data

Ironically, though one of these is – on the face of it – overtly grounded in technology, and the other in human capital and leadership, my overall takeaway from this year’s Big Show is that these do not necessarily represent divergent paths. Increasingly, not only are the two approaches complementary – they are, in fact, both a crucial part of being customer obsessed (and, thus, eventually successful).



“We no longer think solely about the quality of the products we build,” explained Microsoft’s Toni Townes-Whitley, Corporate VP of Industry. “Our focus is more now on the way it is adopted and used by our consumers.

“In this sense, we have made a conscious shift to move from being ‘know-it-alls’ to becoming ‘learn-it-alls’ – endlessly curious about how we can do more to empower people out in the world.

“It is this culture internally that Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] has demanded we all buy into, and that in turn drives the clarity of our mission and, ultimately, our growth mindset and profits.”

I’ve already referenced Walmart’s “culture of change” under the leadership of Doug McMillon in my blog round-up from Day One, but Monday’s session with former NBC and GE heavyweight Beth Comstock continued the theme of dynamism and agility: “Transformation”, she said, “means you’re never done. Volatility is the new normal.”

“Big businesses must think carefully about their talent acquisition, to build a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Scott Friend, Managing Director at Bain Capital Ventures. “When they directly consider the new hires they can bring in to better drive change, that’s great leadership.”


Ecosystems of data

As Alibaba’s North America VP Lee McCabe said in his Feature Stage keynote on Tuesday, leveraging a whole ecosystem of data “shifts the emphasis from B2C to C2B”, because businesses are increasingly building products and retail solutions that are personally designed with the customer’s absolute convenience and tailored requirements in mind.

In the case of the Chinese marketplace giant, that includes data from right across Alibaba’s sprawling and rapidly growing group – encompassing search, payments, mobile, social, as well as numerous technologies bridging the traditional online / offline divide, even including supply chain and logistics.

Not all of us will have such rich resources, nor such vast reach, but “the smart VC investment dollars are increasingly going to the companies that are data-led, even if they’re not necessarily digital-first,” explained Alex Taussig, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners.


Looking ahead

Falling as it did over the US Public Holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, it perhaps seems apt to round up the NRF Big Show 2018 thus:


“If you can’t fly, then run,
If you can’t run, then walk,
If you can’t walk, then crawl,
But whatever you do,
You have to keep moving forward.”


Not all brands – least of all legacy retailers – can reinvent themselves overnight. However, with these Martin Luther King Jr words ringing in our ears, it’s important to recognise that, to take even the smallest first move forward, we must turn our attention in on ourselves.

Lori Flees of Walmart’s Store No 8 Innovation Lab put it succinctly: “It’s essential that retailers of all sizes disrupt themselves, rather than having someone else disrupt them.”

And thus, for many, a new internal strategy is required: establish a culture of humility and a purpose the business can align around, and continuously feed that whole living organism with all your available data.

Then be prepared to learn, learn, and learn some more.

This year it seems, we’re all going back to school.


To see James’ round-up of the opening day of the NRF Big Show, click here.

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