The NRF Big Show is always one of retail’s most anticipated events—a time for everyone in the industry to kick off the new year by meeting up to learn and connect. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, a crowded in-person event was not in the cards for the start of 2021.
Rather than canceling or postponing, NRF chose to pivot to a fully online experience. Organizers put together a virtual event full of keynote presentations, interactive discussions, vendor sessions, and virtual networking opportunities. As a bonus, most presentations were made available both live and on demand, giving attendees the flexibility to attend on their own schedule.
Lessons from 2020: Pandemic Response, Social Responsibility
Not surprisingly, the virtual conference focused on the resilience of retailers who are navigating a landscape forever altered by the events of 2020. For example, as Walmart’s Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer Janey Whiteside noted, some retailers had to put in place “five years’ worth of digital acceleration in terms of pickup and delivery in five weeks.” Many retailers also had to add new delivery and payment options, create new distribution channels, improve personalization, implement machine learning and AI, and develop or enhance apps and websites to better meet consumer demand.
Many presentations also focused on the related supply chain concerns that go hand-in-hand with the new digital landscape, such as how to improve last-mile processes, how to better collaborate with suppliers, and how to incorporate the latest digital tools to improve the flow of goods. For example, Johan Hoover, VP, Allocation and Replenishment at Big Lots, presented a look at how the retailer worked with RELEX to adapt their supply chain processes when addressing the challenges from the pandemic.
Workforce management was another hot topic, as retailers are adjusting to the staff requirements that go along with new sales channels, local fulfillment options, and dramatic changes to store hours and operations.
And, of course, there were extensive discussions about the social issues that moved directly into the spotlight throughout 2020. Along with a daily “Equality Lounge” session that addressed retail’s increased need to focus on diversity and inclusion, other sessions dove into the concepts of improving sustainability and reducing waste.
The Ever-Growing Importance of Data for All Retail Initiatives
Yet if there was one overarching theme that came up in nearly every discussion, regardless of topic, it wasn’t any of the above—it was the constantly growing importance of data in retail. Over and over, speakers emphasized the need for clean, high-quality data to put all forward-thinking initiatives in place. Whether a retailer is ensuring that its physical locations will be fully stocked, ramping up its ecommerce platform, or updating its staffing schedules across channels, the common thread is the quality of the data used to make those decisions.
No matter what the next 12 months bring to the retail industry, this reliance on data is unlikely to change. As Marvin Ellison, the CEO of Lowe’s, stated in a keynote session, “The most effective technology is the technology that no one sees.” To be successful, retailers need to work behind the scenes to ensure that they are providing clean, high-quality data to all of their digital systems.
Until We Meet Again…
While we are all looking forward to being able to meet in person again, NRF: Chapter One delivered a great way to virtually get together while we wait. The unique setting opened up many critical conversations and provided actionable ideas for moving forward. As 2021 unfolds, consumers will continue to reevaluate how and where they want to make purchases, and retailers will need to adapt accordingly. We look forward to additional discussions when we meet again (virtually) in June at NRF: Chapter Two.