National Retail Federation 2018 Summit #NRFTech

Jul 19, 2018

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to participate in the annual National Retail Federation Tech 2018 conference in San Francisco, attended by over 100 C-Level Retail Execs. Earlier on Sunday, Brian Behlendorf, Executive Director of the Hyperledger Project, had briefed the CIO council about Hyperledger. The event kicked-off on Sunday with two fantastic key-note addresses. The first one by Amy Trask, CBS Sports Analyst and former CEO of the Oakland Raiders had one message – “understand your Fans” which in retail parlance translates to understanding your customers. At one point she talked about how she would spend her time in the stands with her fans rather than the special boxes. While understanding what the quantitative data is telling is important, qualitative data is as important if not more.

The second keynote was delivered by Shabnam Mogharabi, CEO of Soul Pancakes, a content creation company. Her entire message was about how to tell a good story that connects with your audience. The customer appreciated “positive uplifting content, filled with energy, liveliness and vibrancy”. There are “22 rules to story telling”. She added another dimension of “emotional data” to what Amy had said earlier. In order to tell an authentic story, one has to “create discomfort that leads to real + vulnerable stories”. A viral story is short lived impact but a story with a virus spreads and can sustain audience attention for longer periods of time.

Monday morning kicked off with Andrea Wasserman (VP of Retail Experience at Verizon). The first speaker was Katie Finnegan who kick started Walmart’s Store #8 initiative – an innovation center for understanding customer behavior to evolve future retail strategies. Each idea went thru a “Shark Tank” process where each selected candidate would present a “Point of View of the Future” as in a C-Series pitch. Once an idea is taken forward, that innovation was treated as a separate business with its own CEO and accounting head.

I heard concepts like story telling, content pitching, immersive retailing and PoC. The Store #8 incubation process follows a “design-> initiate-> build-> iterate-> minimum viable scale-> evaluate” approach.

Ajit Sivadasan of Lenovo stressed that while strategy discussions are great, executing the strategy is where the rubber hits the road. It took them several years to come to where they are today. Starting with collection of data and reporting, today they are at a point where they use AI and machine learning capabilities to gain insights. They had significant challenges at the beginning, but today they utilize data sciences to innovate or get answers that were previously not intuitive.

During the breakfast, I met Raghu Sagi, the Chief Engineering Officer of Sephora. I have to admit I am not keeping up with the trends and had to ask him what does Sephora do. Their strategy was to give the “lady” a connected experience throughout from home to the store or connecting with their friends and other users. A key to their strategy is to create individual experiences for each woman and simplifying the user experience across all channels.

Maryanne Byrdak, SVP & CIO of Potbelly said that while they are still dealing with legacy systems transformation, their strategy is to protect their brand and be selective on which channel they want to leverage. For example, they would not want their sandwiches delivered with some other brand food products in certain channels. For Potbelly its important to focus on the “Right Price, Right Time and Right Experience”.

Julie Averill , CTO of Lululemon shared an interesting story at Nordstrom about how IT was perceived as an “Electrical Closet” that only mattered when something went down. For Lululemon, business acumen, inspired partnership and strategic relationships with customers are important. She talked about “Speed to change and innovate”, “emotional fitness” and “accountable for commitments” as key to their business.

The CIO of Levi Strauss & Co, Chris Clark shared changes in the perception of IT as a partner who sits on the table with the business as opposed to being in the background as a service provider. The Strauss family is very interested in understanding technology trends and want it to be an integral factor in formulating business and financial plans.

Brandless is another startup that focuses on retail and feeding America through a community approach. According to Tina Sharkley, the founder, through supplier relationships and optimizing the supply chain and cost model, they have kept the pricing of any product at $3. They work with the community and through focus groups understand the needs and behavior of their customer.

Karen Etzkorn leads the Curate group (HSN, QVC, Zulily) and through acquisitions they have grown and also been saddled with disparate technologies. However, she points out that they are extracting the best from each of the entities and applying it across others. Agility and agile methods are very important to them and most importantly “making risk cheap”.

The most illustrative painting of the future came from Peter Schwartz of Salesforce. Kicking of his presentation with a clip from Minority Report, he said that the future will be touchless and based on based on sound, personal digital assistants and intelligent devices communicating with each other, They will understand every move the consumer and personalizing everything. Peter talked about individual personalization using Netflix as an example. At Netflix, they study individual behavior and make minor changes to the UX/UI to tailor the experience based on learning. For example, Peter watches war movies where the selection is limited and hence it tries to steer Peter towards other themes.

His presentation was preceded by two startups “Hingto” and “Lisnr” both looking at changing retail experiences. The theme of “Hingeto” was “anyone can make, anyone can design, anyone can ship, and anyone can buy anywhere” all without locking up inventory. On the other hand, “Lisnr” hopes to change experience including payments using near-ultrasonic, ultra-low power data transmission technology that enables fast, reliable, and secure communication between devices via any speaker and/or microphone.

I noticed that there was limited understanding of “Blockchain” among the attendees, and how it could disrupt the industry. I spoke with several folks including NRF, Sonoma-Williams, Ralph Lauren, Sephora, Zebra, Hughes, Remini, For Eyes, Richemont and Stein Mart about Enterprise Blockchain in Supply Chain. I had some detail chat with Janet Sherlock CEO of Ralph Lauren and Susan from American Eagle about supply chain settlements using blockchain to improve operational efficiencies, reduce disputes and eliminate reconciliations.

I attended the conference as the CTO of Chainyard which is the Technical Partner of Bleexy. @Argentina Moise, the CEO of Bleexy presented the vision of an integrated network of market places that leverage both public and private blockchains, enabled by smart contracts to initiate cross market place transactions and settlements. Bleexy provides a platform for retailers to collaborate in a trustless, transparent environment, yet support privacy and confidentiality. The Bleexy demo can be viewed by clicking here.

There was a presentation by Ryan Orr, co-founder of Chronicled about blockchain. He painted a weaker picture of several features such as key management and privacy still lacking in blockchains and that one in five who claim to be blockchain experts is bluffing. My strong feeling is that they work in the Ethereum space where many of these features have to be custom integrated to create private blockchains. Hyperledger-Fabric, while still advancing, provides native capability to address many of these challenges through the availability of channels, sideDB, service discovery, encryption on the chain, zero knowledge proofs, certificate authorities and member services and many more.

In summary, retail has several challenges in fast changing environment that include compliance with PCI, GDPR, protecting brand reputation, protecting, employees and understanding patterns of transactions. While many retailers are struggling with legacy systems and transformation, others see Amazon both as driving innovation at a a tremendous pace and a threat to their existence. Retail innovation is experimenting with several technologies such as chat bots, digital voice assistants, augmented reality, gamification approaches, avatars, social media, AI/ML and in store technologies such as smart devices, listeners, voice and facial recognition. Personalization is now at an individual level. Of course Price and Value are still very important. Innovations in retail have focused on several emerging technologies – data sciences being on the top.

The NRF has done a fabulous job of hosting this event. The event was held at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. The event kicked off on Sunday and gave plenty of opportunity to learn about the trends in retail. For a change, the sponsors did not have to put up booths and hang around which was a welcome relief. The breaks in between, the lunch, cocktail hour, dinner and post dinner cocktails all offered enough time to understand and chat with attendees. The food was excellent and had a variety for the foodie. Loved the interaction with the NRF Leadership. Thank you NRF for a beautiful event.

Post by Ramya Donekal

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