The ultimate NRF 2021 recap

Genesis M Longo

By Génesis Longo

0 min read

5 Key Themes Retail Virtual Big Show

5 key themes from retail’s virtual “Big Show”.


Just as COVID-19 has transformed the global retail industry and forced millions of shoppers online, so too has the pandemic disrupted the industry’s flagship event. The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) “Retail Big Show” is traditionally held each January at the Javits Center in New York City, but this year, fittingly, has been split into separate digital and brick-and-mortar chapters. Chapter One took place as a virtual event in January, and Chapter Two is currently slated for June 2021 in its customary analog form. 


The Talkdesk retail and e-commerce team was in attendance to devour as much of Chapter One’s 80 hours of virtual content as we could. Here’s our summary of the key takeaways for the retail industry’s next chapter:

Omnichannel Virtual Big Show


1. Omnichannel whiplash.


One continuous theme at NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show—Chapter 1 is “The Great Compression,” symbolizing the forced digital transformation companies had to endure in 2020. There was not a single session we attended at NRF 2021 that did not stress the years of digitization that were packed into a few days, weeks and months in 2020. Retailers saw the impact of change differently, but according to McKinsey, the industry experienced roughly 10 years of digital growth in about three months.

  • Schools went digitized.
  • Elderly care centers became digitized.
  • Medicine and counseling became digitized.

… And overall, “shopping” and “buying” became digitized. 


Before the pandemic, consumers shopped in physical spaces as an activity—a way to interact socially. On the other hand, consumers used to buy things online, but in very transactional methods. With the pandemic, these two ideas have flipped. Today, the idea of “shopping” has become more transactional, hygienic, and sterile for health, which has been deadly to shopping experiences. Because customers can’t touch anything and social interactions are discouraged, the purposes and joys of shopping are limited. On the contrary, retailers have thought through how to make the online ‘buying’ experience more experiential and turn it into the interactive activity in-store shopping used to be. At the end of the day, people don’t buy stuff. They buy experiences. 


Video commerce.


One of the ways retailers are getting creative with online commerce is through video. Since associates can’t be with customers “IRL” during the pandemic, they’ve turned to digital channels to communicate. Retailers at NRF shared that social media and video have become key channels not just for their marketing teams, but also for their associates. 


For example, with idle in-store traffic, associates have taken it upon themselves to encourage their own social media followers to buy things. They’ve made it clear that they are retailers’ biggest brand ambassadors. 


Similarly, video platforms like Instagram and TikTok have been hot, particularly for brands that cater to Gen-Z and Millennials. Many companies, especially makeup and beauty ones like Estee Lauder, mentioned that live streaming has been huge for their business. Influencers have been able to use products or try clothes on in real time, giving customers chances to ask questions, sign up for one-on-one virtual consultations or even buy as they watch. By having influencers or beauty consultants do their makeup on video, talk about how the products feel, mention what the ingredients of the products are and educate users on how to use the product, consumers feel engaged and included. Video commerce has become a great tool not just for consumer education, but also for upselling and cross-selling. Influencers and consultants are leveraging video to show how products can work better together, encouraging customers to buy them both. These interactive virtual shopping experiences are not going anywhere. They’re just now ramping up. 


Blending associate and agent responsibilities. 


As associates have adapted, their roles and responsibilities have merged with the traditional roles of contact center agents. Similarly, agents have had to take on associate responsibilities of clienteling. As a result, contact centers have emerged as a critical engagement channel in the customer journey. However, with the shift in roles and responsibilities, retailers face a new challenge: equipping agents and associates with the new skills and technologies required to meet the moment. 


Retailer-in-retailer models.


On the topic of blending, there was a lot of talk about the retailer-in-retailer concept. Think Sephora in Kohls and Ulta in Target. Merchants are getting smarter about leveraging each other’s customer bases for improved profits, but also improved customer experiences. When being on a shopping trip feels dangerous, the fewer stops you make customers take, the better.


Omnichannel services.


During the pandemic, companies like Suitsupply felt like they were swimming upstream. Major demand drivers were upended when people stopped attending weddings, graduations and in-person job interviews. Suitsupply has adapted by ensuring style advice is available from all channels. They also enable customers with a seamless omnichannel experience. Customers can start a conversation online, pick out items to try on and have those items waiting in the fitting room when they arrive in store. Suitsupply is even adding bars to some rooftops to provide a deeper customer experience (CX).


Like Suitsupply, other retailers are realizing they need to start competing with D2C brands. As a result, the role of an agent or in-store associate has shifted from answering questions to serving as a shopping consultant. Customers want opinions. They want to know they are making the best purchase decision.


CX Implication: To deliver a profitable, truly omnichannel CX, teams across the entire organization (agents, in-store associates, sales, etc.) need real-time access to holistic customer data. Associates need to be able to communicate with customers through a unified contact center platform so that they can have a complete view of all interactions and the ability to route customers quickly to the most relevant resource, whether it’s a contact center agent or in-store associate. 


Agility Flexibility Virtual Big Show

2. Agility and flexibility.


Planning for the unknown.


As 2020 taught us, agility is king. Marvin Ellison, president and CEO of Lowe’s, spoke with NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay about how retailers need agile e-commerce platforms and supporting technology that are strong and stable. “The most effective technology is the one that no one sees. It is all behind the curtain,” he said.


“You need a sound, solid foundation. Two years ago, we couldn’t offer a customer an e-receipt. We couldn’t set up a schedule for associates in the stores that worked for both customer demand and the associates’ lifestyle. The e-commerce platform was running on decade-old infrastructure. Our job was to put the foundation in place, so the superstructure could grow quickly and be stable,” said Ellison. He shared that Lowe’s had not made investments in merchandising systems or supply chain because, previously, the focus was on acquisitions. But now, things have changed. For retailers today, it’s digital or die. 


At NRF 2021: Retail’s Big ShowChapter 1, we also heard from Niraj Shah, co-founder, president and CEO of Wayfair. He too discussed the importance of technology in continual improvement. 


Supply and demand shifts.


2020 was a year unlike any other for shifts in product demands. As a result, retailers of all sizes had to cope with the pandemic on both demand and supply sides. 


According to Walmart, they saw almost weekly demand changes with stay-at-home orders. Initially, they saw uptakes on health and safety categories, but quickly, that shifted to games, home-schooling equipment, sewing machines, home improvement, garden supplies and more. Sally’s had a similar perspective. They saw an update in personal protective equipment (PPE) and do-it-yourself (DIY) products, such as clippers and self-hair dye. At first, they couldn’t keep up with demand, but in a matter of days, they set up ship-from-store models for more than 1,000 stores. This was a strategic move for Sally’s, enabling them to leverage store-bases and inventory to meet their online demand, and give customers an at-store pickup option.


CX Implication: All retail executives at NRF alluded to the fact that technology and customer service must be at the forefront of strategic planning. First, executives need to ensure they have the tools required to communicate with their customers. Business continuity tools for call centers are crucial to consider. Retail executives also need to employ remote workforce and mobile workforce solutions that empower their agents to deliver exceptional customer experiences from home or wherever they may be. 


Transparency Virtual Big Show

3. Transparency.  


We knew it before. We feel it now: Customers want transparency. 


At NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show—Chapter 1, we learned that 74% of consumers say granular tracking of delivery statuses is important. 


WISMO: where is my order?


According to Bill Quinn from Hibbett Sporting Goods, fulfillment and customer service were the greatest challenges of the last year, in large part due to the unforeseen growth of their e-commerce channel. Like most retailers, Quinn’s most common customer service interactions were customers trying to track their orders or to notify that an order was lost, damaged or stolen. 


Hibbett Sporting Goods’ call center was not ready for that type of demand, so they were forced to get creative and do things like offering free package insurance to help cut down on customer service calls. They began sending shipping delay notification emails and are now expanding their self-service options. Sally’s had a similar experience. Their call centers experienced a spike in customer calls. Customers reached out to know about inventory, store hours, whether or not they were open, or still on shutdown, etc. To keep up with the increase in call volume, they leveraged service bots, answering tens of thousands of inquiries a month and freeing up their agents to focus on more complex interactions.


CX Implication: As new e-commerce habits take root, customers will continue to expect faster deliveries and better service. Contact centers must be agile enough to scale quickly and agents need to be equipped with responses for tough customer inquiries. Being honest about inventory shortages and shipping delays is crucial to maintain customer loyalty.


Value Virtual Big Show

4. Value alignment.


Transparency isn’t just about where orders are and what times you are open. Today’s customers want to know:

  • How your items are made and how they are sourced 
  • How sustainable they are
  • What policies you have for diversity, equality and inclusion
  • How you will respond to current events

As consumers, we gravitate towards brands that align with our values. We want to know that companies aren’t just looking to check the box, but that they are acting with authenticity before we spend our money with them.


In a session moderated by Bloomberg retail reporter Jordyn Holman, joined by Abigail Kammerzell, United States sustainability manager for H&M, and Jennifer Keesson, U.S. sustainability manager for IKEA, they discussed how value transparency is mostly driven by Gen-Z. “Gen Z has definite expectations about what a business is: It’s not just here to provide an item, it’s also here to improve the society and community in which it operates,” said Kammerzell.


More than a manifesto.


In a session titled, “More than a manifesto: Building diversity and inclusion into your product, people and performance,” retailers were prompted to act with honesty and humility, but also with a sense of urgency. 


Some key takeaways from Ronda Carnegie, chief innovation officer of the Female Quotidient and Rebecca Allen, founder and CEO of Rebecca Allen, Inc.:

  • Executives should listen, learn and take time to figure out a strategy, but consumers are expecting responses to current events. 
  • It’s okay if you want to act quickly, but remember that this is a matter of people, so be careful that you aren’t just trying to put a bandaid on it. 
  • Laying out the infrastructure internally to do things in a meaningful way is important, but make sure you set goals to avoid deprioritization. 
  • You may feel that you’re behind in this area, but be honest about where you are, where you want to be and how you will get there.

Walking the walk.


Lowe’s is a great example of walking the walk when it comes to expressing their values. At NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show—Chapter 1, Marvin Ellison, president and CEO of Lowe’s, said, “I know from experience that if you miss a day of work, it impacts your ability to pay your bills. So, we asked ourselves, what can we do?” Here’s what they’ve done:

  • Spent $1.1 billion on direct support to its constituency—associates, first responders and small businesses.
  • Improved policies on healthcare and pay for their associates. 
  • Implemented diversity supplier programs.
  • Launched the “Making It… With Lowe’s!” program to empower entrepreneurs and distributed $55 million of grants to diverse, female-owned and rural-owned small businesses. 

And it’s not just Lowe’s. Retailers are rethinking their approach to sustainability, political contributions, relief, community involvement, bias and so much more.


CX implication: Customers are engaging with retailers across all channels, so how well are agents and associates equipped to respond to questions about values? AI-powered contact center tools, such as agent assist and quality management, can ensure consistent messaging when discussing sensitive topics with customers. 


Convenience Virtual Big Show

5. Convenience. 


Curbside and store pickup.


Words like “curbside pickup,” “at-store pickup” and “same-day delivery” are permanent parts of our vocabulary now, but at Lowe’s, curbside pickup wasn’t supposed to be rolled out until 2021. The pandemic caused Lowe’s and many other retailers to implement different fulfillment methods years ahead of schedule. 


Walmart said it best—they saw five years of projected growth in pickup and delivery in five weeks. They even saw this trend among the 65+ population, a segment that historically did not shop this way. Due to the unprecedented demand, Walmart had to add 40% more time slots for pickup capacity, and ramped up their two-hour express delivery. In 2020 alone, they saw 300% growth in pickup and delivery from stores, which has been made possible through their investment in local store fulfillment.


Appointment retailing.


To comply with occupancy maximums, retailers have had to implement new methods with reservation and check-in systems and procedures. 


Target discussed their success with a new protocol that allowed customers to check lines and wait-times.


Verizon also shared their appointment-based success story, claiming more than 1.4 million successful appointments in 2020. Verizon hopes to expand the concept of appointments, not just for shopping, but also for tech support and customer service.


Radical personalization.


Before the pandemic, retailers knew that personalization was the future, but like many areas of their business it too accelerated due to COVID-19.  


“We’re leaning hard on systems of insights. Leveraging our customer data in intelligent ways will be a game-changer. Customers need to feel like they are the only ones that matter in that conversation,” said Krista Bourne, senior vice president of consumer sales and operations for Verizon.


But data can be difficult, especially when consumers are becoming more aware of just how much data about them is being collected. “Trust needs to be earned in order for customers to be comfortable with you and their data,” said Janey Whiteside, chief customer officer at Walmart.


But personalization is not just about data and insights. 

  • To Suitsupply, it’s about giving radically personalized style advice through all channels. 
  • To e.l.f., it’s about providing customers options to virtually try on makeup, sending them birthday gifts that match their skin type and tone and offering personalized beauty advice and tips. 
  • To Estee Lauder, it’s about using augmented reality (AR) to recommend shades of makeup for people shopping online.

CX Implication: Today’s consumers expect quick and personalized service through all channels. In order to provide personalized experiences, retailers need to unify customer data across all touchpoints. They need to enable their agents and associates to have a holistic view of the customer, and equip them with the tools and information necessary to provide the best possible CX.


Some customers want to be able to help themselves too. To do this well, retailers need powerful voice and digital self-service tools that are seamlessly connected to live support.


The right set of tools can help retail contact centers navigate high-volume, critical shopping seasons. Talkdesk CX Cloud™—an end-to-end customer experience solution—is particularly suited to help retailers deliver personal, proactive customer service that builds lasting, profitable customer connections. If you’re interested in learning more, request a demo now.

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Genesis M Longo

Génesis Longo

Génesis Miranda Longo is the head of industry marketing for retail and consumer goods. A Mexican immigrant and Cornell University grad, Génesis has spent most of her life in food, grocery, and CPG. In recent years, she has worked as a social media creator for well-known brands. Apart from work, Génesis loves cooking spicy food with her husband, increasing diversity in tech and higher education, and spending way too much on her dog, Sunny.