The takeaways from NRF’s 2022 Big Show

Retailers talked omnichannel, DE&I, customer engagement, and more.
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National Retail Federation

· 5 min read

We came. We saw. We got some tchotchkes at the trade show. (Can you ever really have enough branded pens?) And now, after the curtain closed on the NRF 2022 Big Show yesterday, we have some takeaways.

Opportunity for everybody: Even if the second day of the conference didn’t fall on MLK Day, diversity, equity, and inclusion would have topped the agenda.

James Fripp, chief equity and inclusion officer at Yum! Brands, told attendees that if retailers aren’t worried about doing enough, then they probably aren’t: “If you don’t get a little bit scared about not being diverse, then you’re not going to be relevant,” he said.

Appearing on the same panel—titled Making DE&I Personal—Sharon Leite, CEO of The Vitamin Shoppe, shared that she’ll be featured on the reality show Undercover Boss this month. Going incognito in her stores gave her new appreciation for the challenges her employees face.

“In that experience,” she began, “I got to learn not only what they had to deal with at work, but what they were dealing with at home, how that made them who they are, [and] what that meant in terms of engagement with the customer.”

In his keynote, Walmart US President and CEO John Furner urged retailers to be unwavering about committing to better representation, and to be transparent about their progress. Walmart, for its part, issues annual reports, like one in 2021 that found:

  • 47% of US associates were POC, up from 43% in 2019.
  • 46% of those promoted to management were women, up from 43% in 2019.

Workers are so boss: Lowe’s managed to stay open throughout the pandemic, closing only on Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Since Covid struck, it has hired almost 100,000 workers and paid nearly $1 billion in incremental bonuses and incentives for frontline hourly associates.

“As we think about what we need to be as a company, it’s been really simple,” CEO Marvin Ellison, who appeared via video, said in a keynote address. “We want to take care of associates and be the best workplace we can be.”

Also appearing for a keynote via video, Best Buy CEO Corie Barry said that with workers skedaddling for other opportunities, retailers must show them they can move up—without moving on.

“They ask, ‘What is my career path? What are my benefits? What does my development look like?’” she said. “So how do I offer this suite of things to my employees that will help them stay sticky to me as a company?”

  • Best Buy, for example, gave bonuses to hourly workers in 2021: $500 for full-timers, $200 for part-timers.

Beyond greenwashing: Meagan Loyst, an investor at venture capital firm Lerer Hippeau and founder of the group Gen Z VCs, said under-25s like her see right through brands when they offer only lip service.

“A lot of brands—when they try to reach Gen Z, they do a campaign that’s just greenwashing,” she said from the stage at one of the conference’s sessions.

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To help ensure that its environmental goals and claims were legit, Walmart worked with The Nature Conservancy, according to Zach Freeze, senior director for sustainability at Walmart, who spoke on a panel about sustainability.

“There is a need for innovation,” Freeze said. “Ask yourself, ‘What can we do as a company?’ Remember, you can’t be timid.”

A recent survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value and NRF found:

  • 62% of respondents would be willing to change purchasing habits to reduce environmental impact, up from 57% two years ago.
  • 50% of respondents said they’re willing to pay a premium for sustainability—an average of 70% more, twice the premium of two years ago.

Omnichannel is omnipresent: In his keynote, Ralph Lauren CEO Patrice Louvet said that while the company opened 80 stores last year, including opulent flagships in Beijing, Shanghai, and Milan, it’s not putting all its polos in one basket. (You can read more about the brand’s metaverse investment here.)

“We live in an omnichannel world,” Louvet said. “We need to be wherever the customer expects us to be, and we need to be there in a way that supports the brand.”

In his keynote, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said retailers must accommodate shoppers who increasingly are shopping online and in-store—often for the same purchase.

  • A recent study about hybrid shopping conducted by IBM and NRF found 27% of shoppers overall (and 36% for Gen Z) said their primary method of shopping is combining digital and in-store channels.

Customers first—and then some: Chewy has had dramatic growth over the last three years, tripling its revenue to $9 billion, and CEO Sumit Singh told an NRF audience that the key to the company’s success isn’t just prioritizing customers, but connecting with them empathetically.

“When you’re dealing with pets,” he noted, it’s “the only category outside of kids where customers refer to themselves as (pet) parents.”

One way Chewy has connected with those customers goes beyond kibble and Kongs to helping with health care for their pets.

  • The company introduced a pet telehealth program in 2020, and announced late last year that it will soon be offering pet insurance through a partnership with Trupanion.

“The watch words for the future should be communication, innovation, and perseverance,” Singh said. “Also, empathy and compassion—and a real devotion to developing the ability to listen.”

Otherwise…well, Walmart’s Furner put it succinctly in his keynote: “Loyalty in retail is simply the absence of something better,” he cautioned. “Once they go and find something better, they tend to stick with it.”

Whether they’re long-timers or newbies, Target CEO Brian Cornell told his audience, one bright spot has been the resilience of retail workers—and customers.

“They came out to shop,” he said. “They were out physically shopping in our stores. They returned to shopping malls. They were engaged. They wanted to be out there enjoying what retail can provide. It gives me incredible optimism for the future.”

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.