NRF 2018: It’s About the Brand, not the Channel

As the biggest retail conference of the year, NRF’s Big Show sets the tone of the industry for the year ahead. With 35,000 attendees from over 18,000 retailers, you can quickly take the pulse of the entire industry at the event.

This year’s expo was far more optimistic than recent years past. The conversation has shifted from how to “save” brick-and-mortar to where it fits in the broader brand relationships of consumers. Three broad trends seem to be leading the industry in a healthier direction.

The Single Customer Experience

Historically, retailers have viewed online and offline as two different channels, which explains why we went through a “multi-channel” phase that evolved into “omnichannel” before settling into more recent discussions of a blended approach. While those terms are still used, more retailers now recognize that customers see brands, not channels, and your customer relationship spans all touch points simultaneously. A disjointed experience is a disjointed relationship.

In reality, brand relationships are built or eroded at every touchpoint. Each one is a brand deposit or a brand withdrawal, and increasingly, these touchpoints are simultaneously online and offline. It’s the norm to check a price while in a store, post an Instagram photo of a new outfit from the dressing room, or locate an item in a warehouse store by following a mobile map. I’ll admit as a thirtysomething male that I’ve done all three (some more than others). Retailers are learning to ensure that every experience is a brand deposit, regardless of the so-called ‘channel.’

The Value of Frontline Staff

Frontline staff, particularly hourly employees, have often been viewed as replaceable resources. High employee churn was accepted as a natural cost of doing business and, as long as companies could quickly backfill positions, operations would continue as normal. They were rarely seen as part of the brand equation.

But these employees now define a large piece of the customer experience. They’re no longer simply cashiers, but are instead brand ambassadors who, at worst, help customers complete transactions and, at best, guide them to make better decisions and make them feel valued.

One big example: Kohl’s now permits employees to use their personal devices to access the Kohl’s app on the store floor. Helping customers find inventory, access offers, or even order products for delivery prevail over the (overblown) risks of allowing personal device access while on the clock. This is what happens when customers are more important than lawyers.

In-store associates are a critical component of the total brand experience, and technology is a critical component of their success. Investing in those employees to reduce turnover and increase engagement can only result in an improved customer experience. The NRF expo had lots of exciting new technologies in this department, Inkling among them.

Bringing Managers onto the Floor

In at least five separate customer meetings, I heard leaders lament the issue of store managers trapped in an ocean of paperwork. As directives and projects from HQ have grown in number, managers have found themselves tethered to a PC in the back, rather than on the floor with staff and customers. Retailers want to reverse this trend.

For obvious reasons, mobile technology holds this promise. Across the event, vendors are offering novel approaches to device deployment, new software applications to manage communications with staff, and real-time data for everyone to drive visibility and accountability. This shift is real: managers are coming out of the dark and into the light of working with staff to drive revenue, rather than push paper.

Final Thoughts

The shift in the retail mindset away from piecemeal interactions toward a unified customer experience begs for mobile enablement of managers and employees across the hierarchy. Enabling the frontline workforce to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate their day-to-day tasks will bring an efficiency to operations that translates directly to better customer service and brand relationships.

Without mobile tech, we’ll never realize the dream of a workforce integrated with the total brand experience we’re crafting for our customers. And this year’s NRF showed that the industry, at last among the category winners, is seeing it this way, too.

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