Jan 08 2021

NRF 2021: Retailers Gather Virtually to Ponder What Comes Next

They’ll need help from tech to understand their changing customers and deliver the right experiences for the times.

For American retailers, last year was the most challenging in decades, yet sales overall mostly recovered after a three-month collapse during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to National Retail Federation Data. By December, retail sales were up 11 percent compared with the same month in 2019, despite historically low consumer sentiment.

Jack Kleinhenz, the NRF’s chief economist, describes the events of 2020 as a “whirlwind,” noting in the association’s most recent “Monthly Economic Review” that no one could have predicted the bizarre set of circumstances confronted by retailers, which included the forced shuttering of storefronts, massive layoffs, two big rounds of economic stimulus and a bitter presidential election.

“The coming year might be just as eventful as the economic recovery faces many uncertainties,” Kleinhenz says in the report. “Recoveries do not proceed in a straight line and the prospects for volatility over the next few months are high.” 

And yet, while economic uncertainty continues to cloud the industry’s outlook, some things are clear as retailers gather virtually beginning Jan. 12 for the first of two parts of NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show.

Retail Is Now a Digital-First Business

At the end of 2019, only around 13 percent of retail purchases — excluding auto and gas sales — were made online, according to Mastercard. By the end of 2020, that figure stood at around 20 percent. That means online sales grew more than 30 percent last year, and there’s no going back.

Sessions at the Big Show will address questions around retail’s big flip, including how brands must rethink many of their commonly held beliefs about what works in commerce today, what the future of online commerce looks like, how retailers can better merge their online and in-store experiences and more. The CEOs of brands including Wayfair and Lowe's will be on hand to discuss the digital journeys their companies made in 2020 — and continue to make.

The Pandemic Has Changed Consumer Expectations

As consumers continued to shift more of their purchasing online, their expectations shifted too. They’re more discerning now about online shopping experiences and they place greater value on retailers’ ability to deliver products correctly and on time.

That is forcing brands to accelerate their digital transformation projects — leaving some thriving and others scrambling. The Big Show will have a plethora of sessions on how retailers can figure these changes out, including Tech Innovation: What Consumers Want and Where Retailers Should Invest,” in which Euromonitor’s Michelle Evans will identify the consumer preferences influencing shopping behavior and reveal the tech investments that will best align with consumer expectations in the coming years.

In another session, Kelly Mahoney, vice president of customer marketing for Ulta Beauty, will describe the chain’s efforts to cultivate “brand love” and long-term loyalty among its shoppers.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Find out the four tech trends to watch for in retail in 2021.

Retailers Must Reinvent Themselves As They Move Forward

The Big Show will take place at a time when the world continues to deal with the pandemic but can finally see the beginning of its end as millions receive vaccines. What does the post-COVID-19 look like for American retailers? Experts agree that it will be different from the pre-COVID-19 world.

In her session, “Retail’s Hard Reset: How Cataclysmic Events Accelerate Trends, Transformation and Innovation,” Kate Ancketill of GDR Creative Intelligence will explore future scenarios for retail and models that meet those future needs, along with the trends that she believes will accelerate post-pandemic: the challenge to globalization, the deleveraging of physical retail and the implications of the increasingly smart city. 

In their own session, Marc Metrick, president and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, and Celeste Burgoyne, president of Americas and global guest innovation for Lululemon, will discuss how their brands are rethinking the shopper experience post-COVID.

A Different Approach for NRF’s Big Show

Like other industry associations, NRF has had to reinvent its annual gathering. The group has retained its traditional post-holiday timing for this virtual event while adding a second, live event in June.

Other major speakers attending the virtual event — which will spool out over two weeks, concluding on Jan. 22 — include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Walmart CEO Judith McKenna and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase.

BizTech will be there for all of it, so keep this page bookmarked for articles and videos from the event. Follow us on Twitter at @BizTechMagazine, or the official conference Twitter account, @NRFBigShow, and join the conversation using the hashtag #NRF2021.

Getty Images/ YakobchukOlena