Some of the world’s biggest brands and retailers, including Walmart, Levi Strauss & Co and Brazil’s Via Varejo, took to the stage at the NRF Big Show in New York City on Sunday, 14 January, exuding a sense of cautious optimism.
Amid pronouncements that retail is undoubtedly “hard” and “changing fast”, few speakers seemed interested in discussing the “retail apocalypse” that has dominated headlines in the past.
Indeed, when asked about the state of the industry, Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon simply said, “The person who ultimately decides whether we survive or not is the customer.”
Whether it’s the lingering effects of strong holiday sales, or the contagious enthusiasm of successful disruptors like Boxed and Outdoor Voices, the focus now is on common sense strategies for growth, rather than existential questions of survival.
Here are are some key takeaways from the first day of the NRF Big Show 2018.
Levi’s strikes strategic balance
In the first keynote of the day, Levi’s president, James Curleigh, discussed the company’s move to find points of strategic balance between delivering the expected (having products in store, providing a level of service) and surprising customers with the unexpected; between leveraging the brand’s heritage and acquiring new customers through innovation.
Curleigh likened the approach to that iconic eighties hairstyle, the mullet: “What did [the mullet] say? It said business in the front, party in the back. The new brand of business mullet should be simple in the front, sophisticated in the back.”
Entrepreneurs embrace off-the-wall concepts
Moderating a panel of ‘next-generation’ entrepreneurs, Rachel Schechtman, the founder and CEO of innovative revolving concept store, STORY, asked what it takes to create a successful brand or retail business today.
According to the participants, Manish Vora, co-founder of the ‘playground for adults’ concept, Museum of Ice Cream, Michael Lastoria, co-founder of the food and lifestyle chain, &pizza, and Marcia Kilgore, founder of luxury beauty club, Beauty Pie, the best ideas combine the head and the heart, a bit of logic and magic and sometimes a little weird.
International heavy-hitters invest in digital transformation
In a panel on creating a digital-first culture, Flavio Dias, chief digital officer of Brazil’s biggest non-food retailer, Via Varejo, and Matteo Molon, head of e-commerce at Italian intimates giant, Calzedonia Group, shared insights from their efforts to transform largely bricks-and-mortar businesses into omnichannel operations.
Both men emphasised that digital transformation is less about technology and more about organisational and cultural change.
“The leadership team is really committed to incorporating these practices in daily business, bringing more agile perspectives in, trying to be less hierarchical and more collaborative,” said Dias.
Walmart looks at big picture
Wrapping up the first day of the conference, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon spoke about three key areas of investment at the company.
Besides the ongoing investment in e-commerce – starting with WalMart’s acquisition of Jet.com nearly two years ago, to its string of pureplay purchases, including Bonobos – McMillon pointed to the retailer’s ongoing investment in its employees.
The company last week announced a slew of benefits, including wage increases and one-time bonuses, as well as extended maternity and parental leave.
“We have to put [our people] first and support them…The bet we’re making is that over the long term – as we invest in tech – [our] people are the way we’ll win,” he said.
Come back tomorrow for more insights from Day 2!