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NRF Chapter One and the Year of Agile Authenticity

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the world upside down and business operators were all left wondering the same thing: what now? That questioned was answered in the form of an ultimatum: cave into crisis or climb over it. 

At NRF 2021: Big Show: Chapter One, the spirit of innovation was alive as retailers shared how their teams quickly went to work executing initiatives to roll out mobile technologies, pick up services and enhance the online shopping experience in the wake of the pandemic.

During a Jan 15. speaker session, Walmart’s Chief Customer Officer Janey Whiteside spoke with Deloitte’s Ira Kalish about the ways the big box retailer had to meet the changing needs of its customers.

With shoppers suddenly faced with a new reality where gathering groceries comes laced with a gamble, the least risky option becomes the clear and obvious choice.  And thus, in its first quarter of 2020, Walmart saw a 300 percent peak of grocery pick-up and delivery adoption among its customers.

“We saw five years’ worth of delivery acceleration in terms of pickup and delivery in just five weeks,” Whiteside said when discussing the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Julian Mills, CEO of Quorso, an intelligent management platform provider, told RETHINK Retail that 2020 was the year omnichannel really “came of age.”

 There was massive growth of BOPIS, curbside, Instacart, social commerce, etc,” Mills said. “Essentially, it all was about giving the customer exactly what they want, where they want, when they want it. Now, that shift has clearly been accelerated by all of the physical constraints the pandemic has imposed.”

Also in attendance was Madalynn Lauria, an account executive at Nedap Retail. Lauria told RETHINK that “services like Ship From Store and BOPIS have become crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, with retailers and brands utilizing their physical stores as fulfillment hubs.”


Shifting values, shifting communication, shifting technology

The upending of our normal, everyday life not only shifted routines, but it also shifted values. As a large portion of the population continues to work and learn from home, the desire for empathy and communication has increased two-fold.

The pandemic has reinforced a sense of community, family, and what “really matters.” They’re not lofty dreamers—they’re “reinventing the wheel,” said Andrea Bell, director of insights at WGSN. “They’re looking for a place where they can feel again.”

With a heightened focus on community and authentic conversations, several retailers shared key insights on how they are advancing personalization and loyalty among their customers. 

At ULTA Beauty, the prestige beauty retailer has won the hearts and minds of beauty enthusiasts with its increased focus on flexibility, innovation, and guest centricity.

“Our vision is to personalize our communication and provide personalized experiences for our members at every touchpoint in our store, online, and print channels,” said Kelly Mahoney, vice president of customer marketing at ULTA Beauty. “Purpose matters. Our old patterns and old ways of how we filled our days with busyness have waned for most of us. There’s more time now for contemplation in our actions. And therefore, brand purpose matters.”

When asked about the changes he’s seen among his clients’ customer base, Jeremy Brazeal, executive creative director at Reality Interactive, told RETHINK that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a shift unlike any he’s seen in his lifetime.

“The barrier of trust that was keeping people from engaging in these experiences evaporated overnight. It had to,” Brazeal said. “And the time they are now saving, they’re filling with things they enjoy, such as family time… can’t compete with that.

“What is happening now in retail is an example of natural selection,” he continued. “The companies who embrace this reality and see the opportunities here are doing extremely well.”


Sustainability, trust, and transparency

Among many of the participants at NRF: Chapter was the sentiment that sustainability will play a key role in the purchasing decisions of consumers—especially among Gen Zers. Thought leaders from ULTA, IKEA, The Home Depot, and H&M were featured in panel discussions on their sustainable initiatives and plans for a better, greener and cleaner path forward.

During a Jan 13. session on sustainability, Abigail Kammerzell, US sustainability manager at H&M, highlighted the role Gen Z is playing on the push for sustainable and ethical choices in retail.

“Gen Z’s has shifted the expectation of what a business is,” Kammerzell revealed. “Their belief is that business is here not just to provide an item, but also to improve the society and community in which it operates. They want to know down to a factory level where clothing is being made, sourced, and the implication it has on the society that makes it.

“We are all developing new ways of working and living and it’s important that we all understand that our ultimate needs of having a safe and healthy planet haven’t changed—they’ve just become more urgent.”

Also in attendance was Jennifer Keesson, US Sustainability Manager at IKEA, who said shifts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the retailer’s goal to become a more sustainable company.

“Our relationship with our home has changed and people’s wallets are smaller as a result of the pandemic,” Keesson said. “With that we see it as a responsibility within IKEA to still move forward with our vision of creating a better everyday life for people—which includes creating a healthier and more sustainable life.”

What seemed to me most apparent during the two weeks of NRF’s virtual Big Show, is the idea that innovation starts and ends with people. 2020 was a year like no other–and 2021 will be, too. But along with the many shifts that have changed this industry has come a newfound focus on the true why behind the innovation: people.

If there’s one thing to take away from this year’s event, it is the ringing call to change the way we live, communicate, and consume products.

 “Together we can make a collective impact on the world around us,” Dave Kimbell, President of ULTA Beauty, at NRF 2021.