NRF 2021 in five words.

Phil Thorne 02/05/2021·6 min read

At Quorso, we’re used to crunching through terabytes of information to give clients a truly data-driven view of where the opportunities are in their business.

So we thought we’d do something similar for understanding the key retail themes for 2021 that surfaced during the NRF period. We hunted through 232 articles, over 80 hours of speeches, and 1,457 social media posts attached to #NRF2021 over the last month, looking for which thematic words were most used. The wordle below shows the result of this content analysis, representing the main themes people are discussing in retail right now.

The top five words shaping retail in 2021…

Ordered by the frequency they appeared in conversation, these are the five key topics that are driving industry thinking.

Theme 1: Customer.

It wouldn’t be retail without having the customer at the very heart of it. 2020 was a prime reminder of that as the pandemic reinforced for retailers the importance of customer relationships. For the very isolated, visiting the store and engaging with associates was a key source of social interaction.  Walmart’s President, Judith McKenna, noted how their staff started wearing “happy to chat” badges as a way to reinforce that connection within communities.

As is always the case at the beginning of the year, different predictions are offered as customer trends. Three themes came up consistently:

Future of work.

What is the impact of a persistent working from home culture? Data suggests that commuting will remain at two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels, which could radically reshape parts of the industry whose footfall relies on the daily back and forth from work.

Conscious consumerism.

Mindy Grossman (WW International), and Sharon Leite (Vitamin Shoppe) both talked about the growing desire from consumers to understand the sourcing and impact of their buying choices.

The “next” normal.

Or whatever descriptive phrase took someone’s fancy for post-pandemic, and the uncertainty that it poses.

How will our consumption habits be reshaped by the past year? On one hand, all consumers have been pushed online, helping accelerate ecommerce growth by 2-3 years (though still only 16% of retail sales). On the other, is the expectation/hope that we’ll all be flooding back into social spaces when we can. The only consistent view is that retailers will need to remain nimble and adapt.

Theme 2: Experience.

Experience has taken on a different tone in NRF 2021. Over the last five years, the general theme has been to separate the digital and the physical. Digital experience has been about frictionless personalization, and physical experience was all about the theatre to drive footfall.

2020 has taught retailers that experience is far more fluid and complex than a binary physical versus digital. Customers want to shop how they want, when they want, where they want. Omnichannel has truly come of age, and now goes beyond simply physical and digital to include BOPIS, curbside, and social.

Almost every retailer has their story of quickly cobbling together these offerings, but the retailers that embed this philosophy across the whole of their business model will be the ones that make it a competitive advantage.

Theme 3: COVID.

No surprises that the pandemic has been a big topic of discussion – the majority of other themes were all anchored within it. The general dialogue around the pandemic can be split into two camps.

Firstly, what we can learn about crisis management? It became clear from all leaders that transparency and communication were key to getting through the past 12 months. Indra Nooyi (ex-Pepsico) provided the best framework for leaders:

  1. Become a student. Study the issue in depth so you can communicate effectively with all stakeholders.
  2. Simplify the complex without ignoring the complexity in order to be able to break things down into manageable and communicable steps.
  3. Bring in the experts. An epidemiologist will know far more about a virus, for instance, than you will. Lean across to other sectors who have faced similar challenges. If, for example, you need logistics help to distribute vaccines, call in logistics companies.

Secondly, those who are using the pandemic as a learning opportunity and a stimulus for change. Many described how ten years of digital transformation occurred in months, providing an impetus and confidence to bring retail into a new era.

Theme 4: Agile.

When most people say “agility”, they mean it descriptively: how nimbly they had to adapt, or extreme pivots like curbside or BOPIS. However, as the dust settled on 2020, some of the truly Agile management practices were starting to become commonplace in retail. We observed its hallmarks:

  • Local teams, working on short sprints rather than grand business-wide plans. Local markets behaving independently from one another.
  • Decisions needing to be pushed down, and people trusted to make them, fast.
  • Mass and rapid experimentation. With time being of the essence, testing and learning being used to figure out and quickly scale successful actions in the new environment.
  • An empiric, data-based approach to Regional Management. With an inability to be in situ physically, data had to tell the story of what was working or not.

The practices of Agile, first formulated within software, have creeped into retail through ecommerce and supply chain stores. Agile principles are rapidly becoming prominent in future plans across all types of retail to allow rapid adaptation to the customer.

Theme 5: Data.

Despite arguments that there can be too much or too little, it remains clear that many retailers believe data is the core for building successful businesses.

As Marvin Ellison, CEO of Lowe’s described, data is the foundation of the company and everything else can be built quickly around it. This foundation is more than just capturing data, but also providing access to the right people, at the right time, with the right frequency.

Many retailers have played massive catch up here in the last 12 months, transforming to a cloud-first infrastructure. Looking ahead it’s about building a competitive advantage off the back of this and turning data into effective, measured, replicable, and scalable action.