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“I don’t think retail is dead. Mediocre retail experiences are dead;” this statement from Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal certainly rang true at the NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show.

In fact, the retail industry was optimistic at this year’s conference, coming off the strongest holiday season gain since the Great Recession. After three days of keynotes, breakout sessions, and commentary from the industry’s most innovative leaders, it’s clear that the future of retail lies in delivering a superior customer experience.

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And to deliver this frictionless experience for the customer, retailers must build technology with the customer in mind. Not surprisingly, technology certainly emerged as the star of the NRF conference with many press outlets commenting that the retail exhibition floor looked more like a tech expo.

Don’t worry though, if you missed NRF this year we’ve rounded up our 5 key learnings from the conference:

1. The retail race has begun

Time and time again attendees declared that the pace of change was accelerating. Why? Because customers are more ‘impatient’ than ever and retailers need to stand out more than ever. In today’s retail world, there’s never been a greater need to operate at speed and react to change. As Doug McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart, mentioned, it requires speed to build an eCommerce business. “The way customers want to live their lives today brings the store and eCommerce experiences together,” he said.

“To remain viable in the retail industry, it’s also very important to find ways to change with the times and not remain stagnant, but rather accept and adapt to change.” Through our experience with ASICS, we know firsthand the importance of both speed and agility; MuleSoft enabled the retailer to deliver eCommerce experiences 2.5x faster to build relationships with customers and expand their omnichannel strategy ahead of schedule.

2. AI is the future of personalization, but you need a lot of data – a lot of accurate data

Personalization is not new, but it has become increasingly complex as retailers aim to offer it at scale. This theme of personalization was mentioned by almost every speaker, including the first session featuring Terry Lundgren, Executive Chairman at Macy’s. According to Lundgren, “the whole concept of personalization is simply on steroids right now. It’s all about the consumer in that one moment in time.

We’re doing anything we can do to connect directly with consumers and make shopping convenient for them.” One of the ways retailers aim to improve personalization is leveraging artificial intelligence. Many mentions of moving into an “AI-first” world were noted and AI will continue to be a major focus for retailers this coming year to acquire users and better understand their needs.

To be effective, however, a massive amount of data is needed and this data is often held in disparate systems that must be integrated together in real time.  Through our work with retailers like Coca-Cola, we understand the importance of having accurate data to offer that level of personalization and how all the data crunching requires new tools and colleagues (such as Data Scientists) that need to get up to speed quickly.

3. There’s a lot of buzz – whether it is AR, VR, Robotics, or 3D experiences – but scaling these technologies is still a challenge 

Customer experience continues to take center stage, with new technology solutions promising to help with awareness, consideration and engagement. One of my favorites was SaturnHoloTour, an AR avatar that guides a customer during their journey, adding another layer for your store’s shopping journey. But as Brian Kavanagh, senior director at The Hershey Company, pointed out: “there is so much tech out there that brands big and small can’t try everything and go with every shiny thing. If we can’t scale, it’s not worth it to us.”

He explained that Hershey only wants to rollout technology that it can scale to all of its stores. In fact, the disruptive technology like VR only works if you have an IT infrastructure in place to bring in new experiential technology. This concept of future-proofing your organization is a concept we highly recommend at MuleSoft.  

4. New contextual channels are breaking down traditional retail journeys 

The buzzword “omnichannel” has been used for the past few years, but it’s still just as important as ever. Speakers such as Roots and Adidas, who are blending of the online and physical world to meet customers wherever they are, discussed it extensively.

Other examples include a mobile kiosk called Mio that can deliver snacks to the consumer, and entire stores, such as a Moby Mart, an autonomous convenience store in China, that will drive directly to customers. It’s something we know New York & Company has continued to invest in, working with MuleSoft to develop in-store kiosks. Most retailers will require technological support to build these truly connected experiences.

5. Retail disruption is an opportunity

There’s a lot of change on the horizon, and there will be both winners and losers in the retail race. Lee Gill, JDA’s Head of Retail Strategy, remarked that “By 2025, JDA projects that digital commerce will account for up to 70 percent of retail transactions.

And up to 75 percent of transactions with retailers will take place without human contact, as new technologies open up new, and formerly undreamed-of, avenues for shopping and purchasing.” We can all speculate on the future, but one thing remains true: having an agile and future-proofed ecosystem in place is critical. By partnering with JDA, we are excited about that future.

Do you agree? Tell us what you think in the comments below!

And for more on building a connected customer experience, register for our upcoming webinar with Steve Stone, former CIO of Lowe’s and L Brands. Steve will reveal his advice to better engage with customers and how he has led major retailers to embrace technology as a strategic enabler.