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NRF 2020: 3 Emerging Trends in Retail Customer Experience

Mia McPherson
January 13, 2020

4 minute read

NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show kicked off on Sunday, January 12 in New York City with a record-breaking 40,000 attendees including 16,000 retailers, 800 exhibitors, 200 sessions, and more than 100 hours of content anticipated, according to NRF.

Like years past, the event was full of the hottest retail trends, technology, innovators, and predictions for the year to come.

Here are 3 trends and talking points that dominated discussions.

Chris Baldwin, Chairman and CEO, BJ’s Wholesale Club at NRF 2020. Courtesy of NRF.

Trend #1: Retail is the biggest employer, makes a big impact

The keynote session on day 1 of NRF 2020 featured big names like Chris Baldwin, Chairman and CEO, BJ’s Wholesale Club; Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft; John Furner, President and CEO, Walmart US; Zeynep Ton, Professor, MIT Sloan School of Management; Courtney Reagan, CNBC Retail Reporter; and Michelle Gass, CEO, Kohl’s.

One notable concept that came up throughout the keynote is the idea that retail is the largest single-sector private employer in the US. “Retail supports 1 in 4 American jobs,” according to NRF. But the impact on job numbers wasn’t the only hot topic. The idea that with great impact comes great responsibility was stressed by Chris Baldwin, Chairman and CEO, BJ’s Wholesale Club, who is also the previous chairman of the NRF Board of Directors.

He noted that in times of crisis, retailers are often among the last to stop working, and first to go back to work. For example, during the 2017 hurricanes that affected Texas, the Gulf Coast, and the Southeastern US, said Baldwin, retailers like Macy’s, Home Depot, and Lowe’s provided materials and financial support to communities. He also noted that Walmart and the Walmart Foundation has provided $50 million in cash, products, and other resources in times of disaster in recent years.

The idea that retail is larger than simply selling things was echoed throughout. John Furner, President and CEO of Walmart US, noted that, “The role of corporations has changed,” and it’s not about simply creating shareholder value anymore, but creating great employment opportunities, making a difference in the environment, and adding value to the customer.

Zeynep Ton, Professor, MIT Sloan School of Management and John Furner, President and CEO, Walmart US at NRF 2020. Courtesy of NRF.

Trend #2: Success in retail takes courage and conviction

Zeynep Ton, Professor of the Practice, Operations Management, MIT Sloan Management and author of “The Good Jobs Strategy”, interviewed Furner for a segment of the keynote entitled, “Why retail jobs can be good jobs.” Ton noted that the session was originally titled, “Why retail jobs are good jobs,” but that title didn’t accurately represent the industry. “Too few companies are deciding to make retail jobs good jobs,” she said. Ton stressed that it takes courage and conviction for retail leaders to make changes and create processes that prioritize employees and customers, but that change is possible. “It’s not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do,” she said.

And that’s just what Furner is doing with Walmart and Sam’s Club, according to their discussion. He first began his career with the company at the age of 19, as an associate in a garden center, and most recently served as CEO of Sam’s Club before being named President and CEO of Walmart US this past October. With a mission to develop a process to empower associates to better serve customers, he’s prioritizing strategies like providing better compensation to key employees, putting experienced, long-time associates in front of customers more often, and keeping personally connected with employees in the field.

The risks appear to be paying off. Furner noted higher comp sales and lower turnover costs, which he described as “a bit immeasurable” due to the far-reaching positive effects.

Michelle Gass, CEO, Kohl’s and Courtney Reagan, CNBC Retail Reporter at NRF 2020. Courtesy of NRF.

Trend #3: Getting creative with omnichannel

Omnichannel customer experience is not a new concept in retail, but retailers are getting more creative with it in 2020. Michelle Gass, former long-time executive at Starbucks and now Kohl’s CEO, shared her ventures in omnichannel with Courtney Reagan, CNBC retail reporter, during the keynote. Gass joined Kohl’s as Chief Customer Officer in 2013, and was tasked by the then-current CEO to provide a fresh perspective to the digital and marketing organization. But she quickly realized that a fresh look required a more holistic view of the entire company, and thus the “The Greatness Agenda” was born.

One of the single biggest moves as part of the new agenda was moving from a brick-and-mortar establishment to a customer-centric omnichannel retailer, said Gass. This included uniting in-store and digital experiences, and developing new partnerships.

One of these new omnichannel-centric strategic partnerships included experimenting with Amazon returns – customers can now bring their Amazon return items to Kohl’s stores for an easy, no-packaging-required return process. “Great partners bring complementary strengths,” said Gass, and where Amazon receives the benefit of easy returns for their customers, Kohl’s gets the foot traffic.

“The rules have changed,” Goss said in regard to how retailers operate in today’s technology-driven, customer-focused environment.

To see more coverage from NRF, read: “Is 2020 the Year of Employee Experience? Insights from NRF 2020“.

Mia McPherson
Mia McPherson is a lover of cats, community involvement, and Pittsburgh sports. Mia is the Editor-in-Chief of SmarterCX.com and has been working with talented teams to create content for the media, publishing, and technology industries for 15 years.
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