Thoughts on day one of NRF’s BIG Show 2017

Jan 16, 2017

The most influential people in the retail world are in New York this week for the National Retail Federation’s BIG Show 2017. GDR Senior Consultant Will Seymour was intrigued by Sunday’s opening day but asks – is there an elephant in the room?

 Retail is going to change more in the next five years than it has in the last fifty. This was the opening gambit as the NRF Big Show in New York opened yesterday (Sunday). Can’t argue with that. In fact, it’s exactly our position at GDR. Automation, AI, robotics, late manufacture – the list of totally disruptive technologies is growing bigger, and they are all coming to a head in the immediate future. It’s a position that our CEO and founder Kate will be outlining on stage today, whilst developing the areas of threat and opportunity opened up by these shifts. Amidst all this change, adaptation isn’t just desirable; it is an urgent survival mode.

So after being told right from the off that retail faces huge shifts in the next five years, I was fascinated to hear how this theme developed on the main stage. Attendees were treated to an hour or two of CEOs speaking with great passion and laudable honesty about the real ordinary people that make up their businesses. We heard about staff, recruitment, training, service, relationships, experts, experiences, friends, families, memories, passions.

James Rhee from Ashley Stewart, especially, brought these ideas to life – a past version of previously-troubled plus-size retailer it seems, was held together only by the affinity felt by its communities of customers to its stores and their staff.

Now don’t get me wrong: this stuff was inspiring and inspirational. The basics of retail are vitally important, and they are very difficult to get right, especially at scale. Many retailers have lost sight of the fundamentals that make them attractive to consumers. Every day we try to help our clients get those fundamentals right.

But here’s my question: are retail fundamentals really how we’re going to deal with the enormous change ready to smash the industry (and the world) to bits in the next five years? No; they are not.

So I wonder if one of two things might be happening here at the NRF; either people are keeping their cards close to their chest, and refusing to reveal how they are planning to completely reorganise their businesses around the imminent technological changes about to tear up the rule book. Or, people are concentrating on the things they know and understand and can control, because the future is too scary to address head on. Which do you find scarier?

Walk the expo floor, and you’ll meet hundreds of people who want to sell you technology to disrupt the industry. Usually this means giving you the power to reduce your workforce through automation, or using automation to completely change what it is that your workforce actually does.

Elsewhere, speakers from small, challenger brands are pitching their manifesto for intimate customer relationships that will force larger retailers to use every technique at their disposal to engage those customers as successfully; such as the radical technologies all over the expo floor.

But on the big stages we hear again and again the importance of customer centricity, skilled staff, and familiar aphorisms about the attention span of the modern consumer.

For the retailer looking at the next five years – with scale and competition and distribution to consider – these things are mightily important. But very, very soon it will quickly become clear that they are not the most important thing. And I’m very concerned that the most important thing – those next five years of dramatic technological change – is not being given the attention it demands.

The Javits Centre has some pretty enormous rooms. I dread to think how big an elephant you could hide in some of them…

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