The NRF Big Show. What Brands can Learn from 3,500 Retailers – Takeaways from a CX Insider

January brought extreme cold weather, snow, and leading retail brands from across the globe and suppliers wanting to share their innovations to New York’s annual National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show and Expo event.

Our customer experience insider looked beyond the hype and technical jargon to highlight the trends and tech aiming to make a positive impact on customer experience. And we go further and share the challenges that are still to be addressed.

Trend One – artificial Intelligence, are the robots coming?

AI is a massive buzz word within the industry and general media; with a doomsday view that huge swathes of people in retail could be replaced by robots, chatbots or other “artificial conversational entities” (their proper name!).

At the NRF Show, AI innovation was very much present, however, it was focussed on behind the scenes analytics to drive, for example, ranging and supply decisions rather than being customer facing. This makes good business sense because as the trading environment gets tougher, optimising the range and product availability are make or break decisions. Plus the business case to reduce head office costs and improve commercials by using analytic models is a much easier one to make than that for customer-facing activities.

After all, at it’s simplest, AI is using all the available data you have in a model that helps you make better decisions, it doesn’t have to be anything like an episode of Humans or Westworld.

Dave Stark, CEO of Intelligent Guided Selling (IGS) provider, Conversity, agrees it’s not all doom and gloom, especially for brands, as in the near future wonderfully clever IGS platforms will serve to drive well-informed and personalised data based recommendations direct to sales associates in store tablets – maintaining the very important ‘human intelligence’ part of any sales process.

AI will be widely deployed back of house as brands consolidate their data. Bringing AI directly to customers is more likely to be via tools to help colleagues deliver a better customer experience.

The futuristic view of shops staffed by robots would require a major rethink of brand strategy and customer propositions for most retailers. AI is more likely to come in via smooth application of CRM and other customer data to create compelling and authentic brand moments of truth for customers.

Trend Two – “I’ll have what she’s having” – the power of reviews.

Social media usage keeps growing and social channels are an increasingly important marketing opportunity for brands, so it is no surprise that customer comments shared via those social channels are being leveraged to drive marketing content. Combine this marketing approach with the seductiveness of a real customer recommendation versus a brand telling you their own stuff is great and you have retail dynamite.

Brands are now able to go much further than just having product reviews on their website and are looking to make leaving reviews interactive and the start of a two-way conversation with brands in a way that provides positive reinforcement to other customers drives up search engine result placement and increases click through and conversion.

This sort of tech-driven review/recommendation process is already working well online, but bricks and mortar stores have some way to go. One solution for brands wishing to integrate reviews to customers in their physical stores is to use an IGS solution like that from Conversity, delivering reviews direct to a customers smartphone or a sales associate tablet as part of the sales process. The strength of this sort of solution means brands will combine discovering and delivering specific customer needs with consumer data analytics and the all-important social/consumer reviews.

Trend Three – throw away your cash register, it’s agile payment time

It seems like every other booth at NRF offers a point of sale till and payment solutions. They all sound like they do the same thing, yet the difference is the new players offer mobile first, agile systems that will cope with the fast-changing technology much more easily than some of the old established systems that are based on old IT platforms. Payment is going to carry on changing – contactless payment adoption is growing and payment limits are set to rise again, cash is used less and less; so do you really need a huge till and cash drawer? Isn’t it much easier to have a mobile device that takes payment and is really a small, multi-tasking computer, or a handheld unit that goes to where the customer is to provide a smooth customer journey and free up till point footprint for more product? As every taxi driver in New York offers mobile card payment, to some it looks like retail is really lagging behind.

Trend Four – is it a shop or an advert?

The NRF Show linked store tours around Manhattan to show the rise of the ‘brand flagship store’ that is at least as much about the brand as it is about selling product. Niketown in Trump Tower was the first example and it is now joined by the new Adidas store on 5th Avenue, a vast 45,000 sq ft ‘stadium retail concept’, that takes inspiration from U.S. high school sports stadiums. To that end, the entrance to the store mimics the tunnels athletes typically walk through to get to the field, there is a stall selling juices and snacks, a personal fitness consultation area, and a customisation area for both shoes and clothing. The store has “locker rooms” to try on the product, and areas called “The Turf” and “The Track” to test out product before purchase. In the same ilk, concept stores include Apple in its temporary home and a newly opened Dyson store.

These stores tend to have smaller, carefully curated ranges than you would see in a typical store with purchase on the day in second place to building brand desire and setting out a strong brand image. There will always be a handful of these stores that influence how mainstream stores look and perhaps show us how stores will develop as we move to a more integrated online/ bricks and mortar retail model. Intelligent guided selling solutions also have a place in these new concept stores, with the major function to deliver that all-important customer experience, aid consumer understanding and, of course, sway positive buying decision-making and collection of consumer product feedback – driving a circle of intelligent recommendations for future customers.

The strong signposting of key ranges, impactful displays, knowledgeable and plentiful staff in these concept stores combined with a lack of the clutter that blights so many shopping experiences makes it an easy and pleasant customer experience. More, please!

Yet amongst these trends, there were also some clear challenges that are not being addressed by the vendors displaying their best wares at NRF

Challenge One – it can, but should it?

There are always a few innovations on show that are technical capabilities looking for a problem to solve, rather than being useful and intuitively easy solutions. Examples from this NRF include:

A 3d scanner to let you know what size shoes you need – I think most people already have a good idea on that one and I could have tried on a few pairs in the time it took for a scan.

A system that scans a woman, tells her body shape and suggests dress shapes that might work on her. I can imagine this sounded a great idea on an IT team away day; but what woman wants a computer to tell her she has a square body shape and a larger than average bottom when looking to treat herself?

Another interesting one in here is facial recognition – some footfall counters are using it to track simple demographics while Caliburger is taking it further; when you order at their kiosk they want to identify you and link to your loyalty card. Perhaps if your food ordering point knows you and starts asking if you just want the usual it might be time to step away from the burgers…. Will we accept recognition from a kiosk in the same way we do from a person who really knows us in our local bar or coffee shop?

Challenge Two – Data Privacy and GDPR

So much tech requires us to give away our personal data and strict new rules are coming in to play in the EU this May. Outside of the EU, companies are often less aware of the upcoming changes in the EU and may not have thought about implications in how personal data will be used – for example, facial recognition solutions.

Challenge Three – Omnichannel customer journeys

Customers are increasingly undertaking multi-channel journeys when buying considered items, yet most solutions offered at the NRF Show were squarely developed for either online or stores. Without reflecting how customers actually interact with brands, retailers are missing commercial opportunities and are hungry for solutions that will help them deliver a consistent branded sales experience across all channels.

Digital Strategy Consulting noted that 9 in 10 shoppers will visit a brands’ website during the purchase journey, that’s 89%. A stat that serves to only further underline why brand companies are, and should, be taking responsibility for curating a more direct relationship with consumers. The majority of this brand effort should be focused on educating the customer and relentlessly ensure they are being represented across all channels in a clear and consistent manner, encouraging customer retention and loyalty.

Depending on their journey, customers might interact via store associates, contact centres, field staff, online, using mobile or tablets or via self-serve kiosks. With so much product choice in most brand repertoires, streamlining information using an intelligent guided selling platform so you are sure every customer is getting the knowledge, guidance and information about your brand and its products is imperative to success.

The answer to creating this culture of brand advocacy is – according to numerous brands which are already ahead of the curve – to implement an Intelligent guided selling solution like that of RIPPL from Conversity. Intelligent guided selling has the ability to have this required omnichannel impact, by enhancing the consumer journey through real-time needs based personalisation and an added element of theatre, regardless of how or where they shop. When implemented and used in the right way, consumers are in a position where they can easily access comprehensive advice on a particular product, as well as customer reviews and more general positive brand information. When consumers feel valued in such a way, it goes without saying that they are more likely to become loyal brand advocates.

Conversity’s RIPPL platform is an all-encompassing solution with 10 years of guided selling experience built in. integration ability means communicating between all current business solutions including payments, CRM, warehousing and POS is a piece of cake, and there’s no need to replace any existing legacy solutions. Get in touch to find out how we can help.