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The Simple Truth of NRF 2019

Gabrielle Gerbus   |   Posted January 31, 2019

What do Microsoft robots, Salesforce chocolate-dipped marshmallows, and gallons upon gallons of free espresso have in common? All three were eye-catching features of the 2019 NRF: Retail’s Big Show in New York City. With 38,000 attendees, 16,000 retailers, and 800 exhibitors representing 99 countries, there was no stepping stone of retail left unturned. For three jam-packed days, retailers, innovators, and leading industry thought leaders discussed the latest insights and innovations changing the retail landscape.

After 76 hours of living, breathing, and talking retail, I walked away with several takeaways. Most notably and perhaps importantly, the long-espoused myth that “retail is dead” could not be further from the truth. Yes, retail is dynamic, fast-paced, and sometimes harsh, but it is very much alive. Second, retail technology innovation seems to be walking down two distinct paths. One path contains robots, machine learning, and automation. The other puts people at the center by leveraging technology to put the social component back in retail. Of course, both paths are neither good nor bad. Instead, both address different retail needs.

Robots are Here but so are Humans

Regarding the first path, nothing affirms a robotic component in our digital future quite as much as giving a robot a name. In my opinion, humanizing the robotic element peels back a layer of unfamiliarity and perhaps even the contentious robotic-human relationships portrayed in apocalyptic movies. At NRF, there was no denying the ever-growing robotic presence and the real benefits to companies who can benefit from such technology. Perhaps Robert the Robot will be counting inventory at a store near you sooner than you think.

On the other hand, the show’s emphasis on employee empowerment and customer satisfaction prove that people have and will always remain at the center of retail. The importance of understanding customer needs and improving the in-store customer experience reigned supreme. Finding new and unique ways to engage with customers is top of mind in the retail space, and I learned that creating a seamless and fun in-store experience is one way to do that. So although robots had their unique NRF spotlights, I was actually surprised by how much emphasis the show and its exhibitors placed on the human connection.

Purpose-Driven Retail

How can we unite these two themes to move the industry forward? What motivates the change? I was fortunate enough to hear Chip Bergh, President and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., speak to a packed auditorium on what it means to lead with purpose and integrity. He said it is not always the profit but instead the purpose that should remain a motivating factor in today’s harsh retail landscape. Therefore, whether it be robotic inventory management or empowering employees to excite their customers, purpose must drive innovation.

In conclusion, innovation comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes. It manifests in robots, big data, devices, and even chocolate-dipped marshmallows. However, it is the purpose driving the innovation that indeed moves retail forward. My biggest takeaway? The future is now. Robots are here to stay. Technology should absolutely be used, adopted, leveraged, and taught. But robots cannot create a vision or drive a purpose. Purpose-driven retail and customer engagement will always be paramount to success and survival in the industry. NRF was very much about the people, and I can’t wait see what exciting innovations will come from such an inspiring show.
Until next year!

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