NRF Retail Converge 2021: What caught our attention (so far)

Several key themes have stuck out like a drone dropping off deliveries. The biggest, however, is a Golden Rule of retail: Focus on the customer.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

The first three days of NRF Retail Converge were packed with references to the “new normal,” but we promise that’s the only time we’ll mention it.

Here’s what caught our attention at the virtual event so far.

Customers first

Sam's Club had a big 2020: The company saw revenue of ~$64 billion, fueled by the pandemic. It wants to carry that momentum into 2021. One way to do that: Keep customers happy (and rake in those membership fees).

When the pandemic hit, the warehouse club looked at what existing features it could ramp up, Sam’s Club President Kath McLay said during her Wednesday keynote. For example…

  • Its contactless pay app, Scan & Go, lets members select items in-store and bypass the cashier.
  • Sam’s Club had curbside pickup at 16 locations prior to Covid, but quickly scaled that across the country. It's now at ~600 clubs.

Putting members first was a rallying cry for the company in 2020, McLay said.

“When we first started to design curbside, our goal was, ‘Let’s design it around delighting the member,’” McLay said. “We didn’t have a sales target, we didn’t have a growth target, we didn’t have an orders target.”

Still, it reaped the benefits: Sam’s Club membership income was up 12.9% in Q4 2020, its strongest growth in six years (and rose 9.4% for the year).

Walmart, Sam’s Club's parent company, has a similar customer-first mindset. Walmart US President and CEO John Furner called out tools to boost customer loyalty as a crucial long-term investment in his keynote on Monday.

When a retailer reduces friction for a customer, Furner said, there’s no going back.

  • In the past year-plus, Walmart has built more distribution centers, scaled up pickup and delivery services, and expanded its product assortment via new partnerships (like with Gap).

“Having things closer, being able to serve more quickly—time is a big part of this equation. Value is largely defined by quality and price, but also the time taken away from customers. For us, it is always about understanding what is possible for us and the customer together, and we need to be anticipatory,” Furner said.

Eye on the future

More major Walmart investments: machine learning and AI. That’s the tech helping the retailer prepare for the upcoming holiday shopping season, Suresh Kumar, global CTO and CDO, said during a Tuesday discussion.

  • Walmart recently created an employee app, Me@Walmart, with a voice feature that immediately answers any (work-related) questions (it’s not a Magic 8 Ball).
  • Another feature allows workers to point to shelves in the back room to find out what inventory is needed on the sales floor.
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“I can’t really overstate the importance of machine learning. The online volumes scaled so quickly during the pandemic that ML actually helped us deploy thousands of additional stores as fulfillment hubs in a very, very short span. And it helped us to crunch all the data to figure out where to ship an order. That's where ML and AI start helping us.”

Send off: UPS isn't a retailer per se, but CEO Carol Tomé knows how important her company is to the shopping economy. In her Tuesday keynote, she made the case that the delivery giant is as much a tech company as it is a logistics provider.

  • UPS receives 61 million “Where’s my package?” inquiries a day, Tomé said. Figuring out how to best use data is part of UPS's mission.

“Companies that are older, companies like UPS—our data pools are not that clean. So we’ve got a strategic imperative, which is really data: how to best use our data, how to clean it. Then there’s the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning and how we can get better and better at leveraging the data.”

Amazon, used to leading the pack, is at the forefront of online grocery delivery and frictionless shopping. But adoption has been slow, Rose Jia, Amazon’s head of growth marketing, said during a fireside chat on Wednesday.

  • By 2025, only 13% of customers will shop for their groceries online, leaving a lot of room to grow, Jia noted.
  • Amazon is turning to new tech and data solutions to improve operations, like forecasting and time series models to help manage inventory, and machine learning.

“It means that we're going to have to spend a lot more time and effort educating customers” on the value of online grocery shopping, Jia said.

Hey, it’s worked for Amazon before.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.