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Having experienced the NRF conference for the first time, I wanted to capture my reflections from a week of conversations with marketers, analysts, business leaders and partners. As Co-founder and CEO of Firework, it’s an exciting time to be working to help shape the future of shopping and customer experience. Here are the themes that emerged for me, in no particular order.

Real-World Connections are More Important Than Ever

Human connection has become so much more important as we move away from multiple years of isolation. But the expectation of experience is different then it once was; it’s no longer a one-to-many approach but rather consumers are expecting a personalized and convenient experience online and in-store. And they’re actively choosing to shop more in-store after years of shifting their behaviors solely online.

The digital natives have become hybrid shoppers which allows brands the space to form deeper relationships with their consumers, and create new opportunities for upsell.

We’re Still Trying to Figure Out Omnichannel 

Having heard this term many years ago, I was surprised at how prevalent it still is. But it seems that we’re in the early stages of an evolution, one focused on the re-imagination of how to reach consumers across all touchpoints effectively. And while retailers had recently focused their attention on pushing consumers to digital environments, now they are faced with the reality of this hybrid shopper, and the growing need to perfect our approach to ‘omni’.

What does it mean to be omnichannel? Am I effectively engaging with an individual consumer across all touchpoints, or am I simply blasting a message at all customers all the time? In a cookie-less world, how do I understand and reach my core consumer? What is loyalty? What are the technologies and tools that best allow me to engage?

These are just some of the questions I heard at the NRF conference last week.

Making Stores More Digital

The earlier stages of this evolution were screens in store. Some retailers trialed screens with beauty tips or digital mirrors in an apparel section. Some invested in expensive shelf technologies that allowed for pricing and advertising at eye-level.

But what I heard at NRF was the need for a new approach to digital in-store. It’s less about filling the store with technology, and now more about a seamless shopping experience that’s customer-centric. The approaches to this were varied and still in development, but they were all grounded in the reality that digital in-store, to this point, has been a capital intensive investment that has not created enough value for the retailer or their customers.

Technology is Paramount – And Hard To Build

On the show floor, we partnered with Amex, AWS and IBM to showcase the best of our solution to their partners. What NRF reminded me is how substantial and important the technology ecosystem around retail is in delivering on customer expectations. From headless commerce to payments to marketing activations and more – there are some incredible companies that sit on the periphery of retail that make it all work.

And what I heard a lot during the week was an honest conversation around ‘build vs. buy’, whereby most retailers have recognized that amazing retail technologies require a significant amount of capital investment and engineering resources if it’s to be built in-house. The market is no longer allowing retailers the space and time to invest in developing their own tech.

Empowering Associates

It’s reasonable to assume that often your biggest fans are your own employees. And that’s what retailers are betting on this year. While creators and influencers play a role in reaching consumers at scale, retailers are seeking out strategies and technologies that help them turn their associates into brand advocates – allowing them the platform to promote their companies products and services to their own networks. At Firework, we’ve predicted store associates will play an even bigger role in 2023 when it comes to content creation and customer engagement.

The Future of Retail

In such a volatile time, it’s often hard to see the forest through the trees, but retailers recognize that THIS is the moment to build for the future. Retailers are wrestling with challenges in supply chain, technology, consumer spending and more, but they know that it’s moments like these that push innovation and help build or implement the strategies, tools and technologies that will position your brand to become a leader in the future of retail.

What inspired me about NRF was that the language that retailers were using and the questions they were asking are very much in-line with how Firework has developed its solutions. Real-world connections are ever-more important and video commerce is paving the way to allow for that wherever a consumer wants to shop.

Where the lines are blurring between digital and physical environments sits an opportunity to create a hybrid experience – it could be a shoppable livestream broadcast by store associates directly from the store floor, like we’ve seen with retailers including The Fresh Market and Muji, 1:1 discussions around current and future products and other engagement activities that build loyalty and community. Or, it could be customer testimonials via short, shoppable video delivered to you on your phone, at just the moment you want to learn more.

The 2023 NRF conference has shown that retail is once again changing – because it has to – and it’s time to try something new! So reach out when you want to chat.

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