Evolving expectations keep retailers innovating

In the 18 months since I joined the National Retail Federation, I’ve been struck repeatedly by how rapidly our industry continues to evolve. As we all know, retail has always changed and adapted — and in just the past 20 years we’ve advanced from then-radical game changer Amazon.com to more recent models like Hointer, which boasts what amounts to online shopping in a store. 

There is a distinct theme emerging around all of this evolution. In an increasingly competitive market, it’s no longer just about new technology. Instead, retailers are now looking across the enterprise at all their assets with a keen eye to leveraging the full range of infrastructure, human talent, and, yes, technology, in their arsenal. And it’s not just the sum of those assets that counts — it’s how retailers are using and adapting them to create even greater value. 

Think, for example, how innovative retailers are leveraging their store design and operations to increase the role and value of the traditional store. Especially when building new stores, retailers are paying attention to the relative size of the shipping and receiving areas and how to retool “back of the house” store operations,  thereby forming a network of store-level “fulfillment centers.” This infrastructure also makes it possible for local customers to place orders online and either pick up those orders in-store or have the items delivered within just hours, potentially from the store inventory.

The urgency behind all of this, of course, is keeping up with the radically changing customer — from how they adopt and use technology to the products and service they expect, with zero regard for our industry’s notions of “channels” or other traditional ways of doing things. The good news: this rapid rate of customer change is pushing us as retailers to deliver products and services so much faster and more creatively than we would otherwise. For any retailer to be truly competitive today, the pressure to continuously reinvent oneself is absolutely vital. 

All of this tells me that we’re already in the midst of the next chapter in retailing, and that the next several new chapters likely lie just ahead. Retailing feels distinctly different than it did even just a few months ago. For example, when the Shop.org Think Tank met earlier this year to discuss the then-emerging topic of same-day delivery, options seemed limited for many retailers to offer this kind of service. Fast forward two months and this service is starting to find its feet as a bona fide competitive edge — whether leveraging emerging services such as Shutl or Google Shopping Express, or launching a premium “white glove” service like Sports Chalet announced recently. 

The Shop.org Think Tank honed its analysis around same-day delivery, providing retailers a framework of emerging trends and strategic and tactical questions to understand the central question, “Should it be a priority for your business?” The analysis hit home for me that this is just one of many fundamental topics such as organizational structure and the in-store customer experience that our industry will be testing and fine-tuning, if not wholesale revamping, many times in the coming months.   

While none of us has a crystal ball to know exactly what the future holds, the priority of the Shop.org Think Tank is to identify and produce points of view on trends, business models, technologies and strategies that are shaping the role of digital in retail right now. As we move forward in the evolution of digital commerce, my advice is to keep an open mind, watch emerging trends, set aside some budget to adopt and test quickly, and listen closely to your customers — all tenets that have kept our industry in good stead for many years.

Vicki Cantrell heads the Shop.org Think Tank and is senior vice president for communities at the National Retail Federation and executive director of NRF’s Shop.org division. You can reach Vicki at 202-783-7971, and learn more about the Shop.org Think Tank here