I’m back in cold New York for my sixth National Retail Federation Big Show. You could think of each year as a chapter in a book titled, The Case for Change in Retail. Yes, there are probably some pages in this book that feature buzzwords like artificial intelligence, show-rooming, frictionless and clientelling, but they are all tactics (not strategies) that people have used to address the overarching theme of change.
If the opening chapter in 2012 was something ominous like ‘Retail Apocalypse’, then chapter 2016 was more like ‘Denial in Retail’, while chapter 2017 (and no doubt 2018) will be called something more like ‘Retail’s Regeneration’. Of course, the current chapter doesn’t include all retailers. Some appear to be stuck in chapter 2016 – definitely in denial and pining for the days before ‘millennials’ (maybe).
Goodbye, old guard; hello, emerging players
Overall, the narrative at the NRF has remained pretty consistent over the past six years. Essentially, we have a new generation coming through and a world that is increasingly connected by technology. (This statement alone has a multitude of implications for those who are listening.) But the players in the narrative have changed from chapter to chapter.
We’ve gone from Big Shows dominated by larger-than-life protagonists like Macy’s (one year, their chairman waxed lyrical about the changes they were taking to address the future – evidently that was all talk) and J.C. Penney, to ones where the main characters are those that are addressing and even creating the change: Nordstrom, Ikea , TaskRabbit, and Walmart. There has been a subtle shift, as the retailers that are thriving amidst change start to emerge and share their lessons. Take Walmart, a classic example of a traditional retailer that has leaned into the challenges coming its way (namely, one starting with a big ‘A’).
In line with this change in the main retail characters comes a change in audience too. There has slowly been a shift away from the homogeneous C-Suite retail crowd to one that is starting to show some more diversity, with founders, entrepreneurs and, obviously, more women in attendance.
Diversity (on the agenda, at least)
I must say the NRF agenda this year is weighted heavily towards diversity. It’s a hot topic in society more broadly (think #MeToo), but it’s one that is going backwards in the business world. We now have fewer female Fortune 500 CEOs than we did five years ago. Although it’s on the program, the focus on diversity has yet to hit the NRF board, which currently is comprised of all male board leadership, with just seven women – and 23 men – total. With women making up a little over 50 per cent of the population, and a lot more of the retail consumer base, you could say this is not representative. But I digress…
This year’s show is sure to be more optimistic than the previous years, even in light of store closures and more traditional brands receding into history (think, Sears). This year looks to be filled with true stories of success, from Walmart with its Labs and Store 8, to Alibaba, through to up-and-comers reshaping their category like B8ta and Brandless.
This year’s chapter will be all about how traditional businesses have rebuilt for the future, and how disrupters are reshaping their categories.
Pippa Kulmar is the co–director of RetailOasis, a business consultancy dedicated to creating the future of retail. She is sharing her impressions and takeaways from NRF’s Big Show with Inside Retail. This is the first in a series of articles.