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Overheard in the NRF 2019 Expo Hall: Retailers Share Their Investment Priorities for the Coming Year

NRF 2019 is now officially behind us, and as my aching back slowly begins to recover, I am finally able to focus on what I learned during this year's edition of the greatest show in retail. But before reading on, note please that my perspective is formed exclusively from my time in the Expo Hall. While many of retail's rock stars took to the main stage to talk big picture issues, I spent the entire three days "backstage" in the Expo Hall, where the rubber truly meets the road and industry trends become business priorities.

Every year, retail executives by the thousands come to NRF armed with real-world challenges and actual (and often budgeted) objectives for the coming year. And NRF 2019 was no different. During the 23 hours that the Expo Hall was open to visitors, Aptos hosted more than 400 meetings in our expo hall booth. Needless to say, the booth was constantly busy. So busy, in fact, that – for the first time in my 27 years of exhibiting at NRF – I never once left the confines of our booth, except for the occasional visit to the restroom .

Believe me when I say that the Expo Hall was positively frenetic from the minute they opened the doors each morning until well after they began dimming the lights each evening.

RELATED: Facebook Live tour of the Aptos booth filmed live from the show floor at NRF 2019.


So what, exactly, were retail executives most eager to discuss when they visited our booth? While some definitely wanted to talk about the "big ideas" of the day  - digital transformation (still!), artificial intelligence, data science, and the ever-ubiquitous (yet persistently vague) innovation, to name a few – the majority wanted to talk about one or more of the following three things:

  1. Managing change in an era of relentless disruption.
  2. Creating personalized experiences that are hyper-relevant to their target customers' values.
  3. Understanding the role that microservices – yes, microservices – will play in their ability to manage change and develop engaging, relevant and personalized experiences.

NRF 2019 Theme #1: Talking Change, for a Change (or Not)

Call it a cliché if you will, but managing change was without question one of the hottest topics of the week. The challenges that come with constant change was the subject of the very first meeting I had on Sunday morning, and the subject continued to come up throughout the remainder of the event. Heck, change was even a hot topic with retailers during the annual Retail ROI Super Saturday fundraiser the day before NRF 2019 started.

Change was the word of the day during day one of NRF 2019…

Retailers' message was clear: agility is no longer a buzzword…it is a mandate. Consumer behaviors and expectations are simply moving too fast for traditional business models.

While many retailers believe that artificial intelligence may one day unlock their ability to anticipate change, right now, those we spoke to told us their very survival depends upon their ability to react to change. These retailers consistently identified three critical challenges they face in this era of constant change:

  1. They have to adapt more quickly and bring new experiences to market faster.
  2. They must reduce the opportunity cost of developing new experiences.
  3. They need to reduce the costs of releasing new experiences to the field.

Mark my words (or better yet, mark their words): 2019 will see a dramatic increase in investments in technology that enhances retail's ability to react to change.

NRF 2019 Theme #2: Relevance is More Relevant than Ever

Retailers we met at NRF 2019 also wanted to talk about relevance. Meeting after meeting was spent talking about how to better align experiences to the needs, preferences and values of target customers.

Personalization, like change, is not a new concept. The industry has been talking about personalization for the better part of a decade. However, this year's conversations had more urgency. The executives we spoke to were committed to getting more personal, and they are prepared to put their money where their mouths are. Customer interactions always attract a great deal of CEO mind share, and this year there are lots of investments budgeted and ready to be spent on technologies that can satisfy chief executive demands for more relevant, more personal interactions.

Customer relevance – through stores, interactions and assortments – was a hot topic at NRF 2019.

As I noted in the video above, many retailers are thinking about relevance more holistically than ever before. Not that long ago, most conversations about personalization were typically limited to marketing outreach programs. Personalized offers, be they in-store promotions or email messages, dominated the discussions. Rarely did retailers think outside the CRM "box" when planning personalization initiatives. This year, however, the people we spoke to were thinking about relevance in an entirely new light. They are now committed to enhancing their relevance to shoppers across the entire shopping journey:

  • Creating store experiences that better align to shopper preferences for entertainment, engagement and education.
  • Ensuring that every interaction, whether it be by bot, email or associate, is highly tailored to the unique history of each individual shopper.
  • Developing store assortments that align closely to the style/price/category preferences of each local market.

NRF 2019 Theme #3: Are Microservices Poised for Macro Impact?

The third major theme to emerge from our meetings on the show floor this year was, believe it or not…microservices. I was shocked by how many people walked into our booth initiating conversations about microservices. As a technology marketer who has spent a career attempting to reach retail executives, I long ago learned to shy away from techno speak and focus instead on business benefits.

Technologies and architectures are certainly an important part of the conversation at some point in the software evaluation process, but not during a trade show conversation. Trade show meetings are "getting to know you" conversations. Retailers come to NRF looking to get a sense of who we are and how we can help them achieve their business goals. They typically have no patience for technology discussions. Most will have as many as 20 meetings with people like me during the three short days of the show, and these meeting marathons severely compromise their attention spans.

Most years, the minute I would start talking tech, eyes would begin to glaze over. Retailers simply did not have the capacity to digest all the tech talk they faced during the show. But not NRF 2019. Literally dozens of people came to me initiating the conversation about microservices.

I think there was so much interest in microservices platforms precisely because of the other two themes that surfaced during our conversations. Microservices can help organizations deal with the pace and volume of change that retail industry faces. Journey-wide relevance requires comprehensive initiatives that rely upon multiple technologies like AI, Big Data, CRM, Assortment Planning, and Order Management. Microservices make it easier than ever to develop, integrate, extend and deploy these capabilities across the entire retail ecosystem.

Do microservices hold the key to retail's future? Lots of NRF attendees told us they believe that they do.

Full disclosure: Aptos has been making major investments in microservices. And we spent a lot of money promoting Aptos ONE, our microservice-based platform during NRF. So perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that microservices would be a hot topic in our booth. But I would argue that even if that is true, the sheer number of people wanting to have serious conversations about the underlying technology indicates a sea change. It is clear that the industry recognizes that we have to be more agile, more relevant, more aligned to shopper journeys. And to do so, at least according to the thousands of people who visited our booth, retail business leaders are now willing to pay more attention to enabling technology and platforms than ever before.

Which makes a technology junkie like me very excited to see what 2019 will bring, and what we will be talking about at NRF 2020.