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NRF Wrap-Up: Three Recurring Themes from Hundreds of Expo Hall Conversations

It's already been over a week since NRF 2018 wrapped, and yet I think I am still recovering. This year's Big Show was a veritable whirlwind of activity for Aptos. When all the meeting reports were counted, we had more than 500 conversations with executives from every corner of the retail industry. Over the course of the three short but intense days of NRF, my 125 Aptos colleagues and I met with 30 influencers, 100 partners, and more than 375 retailers.

Distilling all of those 500 conversations into a word count appropriate for this blog post would be impossible. But summarizing some of the recurring themes we heard seems imminently more do-able. So what follows is my best effort at documenting three of the most-recurring themes from our many conversations on the expo hall floor…

1. Disruption is the New Normal

Not that many years ago, I would travel home from NRF every year feeling like there had been one, or in a really challenging year, perhaps two "sea change" disruptions that dominated expo hall conversations:

  • For several years (admittedly more years ago than I care to admit) the advent of eCommerce dominated conversation.
  • Not long afterward, expo hall conversations turned to multi-channel challenges (and then cross-channel, then omni-channel).
  • Data Warehousing had a turn in the spotlight for a year or two, as did its eventual successor, Big Data.
  • And of course the Cloud has captured many conversations during recent NRF events.

But those "simpler" times are long gone. Constant, significant, rapid-fire and entirely unpredictable disruption has become, quite simply, business as usual. The executives we met at NRF this year told us that there are numerous disruptive forces vying for their attention and their resources, all at the same time.

They told us they can't afford to focus too much energy on any one challenge because there are always several other, equally important challenges, starving for a strategy:

  • One day, they are busy battling the challenge du jour from Amazon. The next day they are trying to understand the implications of the looming GDPR regulations.
  • Store fulfillment challenges could easily consume them as they seek to fully leverage the single greatest advantage they have over Amazon, but they can't spend too much time in the stores because conversational commerce is looming around the next corner.
  • Many told us of a need to dig deeper into the Internet of Things. Others expressed interest in the potential benefits of augmented reality. Still others worry that they may be late to embrace facial recognition.


And of course, amidst all of these disruptions, most are facing shifting shopper expectations that represent existential threats to the store. They all realize that long-term survival requires them to completely rethink their store experience strategies, and that the time to act is now.

2. Pushing for Profit

Speaking of existential threats, profit margins were also a big part of NRF conversations this year. Constantly reacting to so many disruptive forces can easily lead to undisciplined spending, and executives from all walks of retail expressed serious concerns about the constant threat these challenges pose to their bottom line.

Adding to the urgency is the harsh reality that Amazon, the biggest threat of all, has a loose (at best) tether to profitability. They blithely opened Amazon Go to the public earlier this week, a full year later than planned, to long lines and seemingly endless buzz. Publicly, they say they are hoping to create a new model for brick and mortar retail. But inside their Seattle headquarters they are most likely just hoping for feedback on their "R&D" investment.

Meanwhile, virtually everyone we spoke to at NRF is tasked with finding ways to innovate, integrate, personalize and differentiate within the confines of their annual operating budgets.

Hence, many of these profit-pressured executives told us they are seeking sustainable adaptability. Clearly, they have do more than just haphazardly react to each disruptive force as it emerges. Constantly being in "react mode" is definitely not sustainable. There are too many disruptions that come far too fast and far too randomly to sustain healthy ROI .

3. Getting Back to Basics

The executives we met at NRF understand that profitably adapting to constantly shifting conditions requires enterprises that are, in fact, built for change. They believe the best way to deal with the present (and future) deluge of disruption is to get back to basics; to invest in foundational technology infrastructure that enables them to be agile, flexible and adaptive, regardless of when, where or how the next disruptive force of change will arrive.

They now recognize that random, rapid-fire innovation/experimentation has to take a back seat to effective execution. Sustainable success simply cannot be achieved amidst a never-ending string of cumbersome, bolted-on, knee-jerk reactions to the shifting tides of technology and consumer demands.

Cathy Hotka of Cathy Hotka & Associates expressed it well when she stopped by our booth late Monday afternoon. "Retailers are telling me that they are looking to get back to blocking and tackling," she said. "Their top priority isn't the Internet of Things. They're talking about building a technology foundation upon which they can build, adapt and evolve. Then they will circle back to the bells and whistles."

So what does it all mean? Where do we go from here? After 500 NRF conversations, I can confidently say it means we are ready to stop getting distracted by shiny objects. That we can't react quickly – or profitably – enough to each disruptive force to survive (let alone thrive) without technology foundations and organizational cultures that are built for change.

An Encouraging Sea Change, for a Change

And consequently, I think we may, in fact, be heading backward…to go forward. As in back to the basics. Back to investing in agile, adaptive enterprises that are built to evolve. Which is perhaps the most encouraging sea change of all.

And this definitely sounds like a good direction to me.