Success In-Store: 5 Key Retail Marketing Themes from NRF 2024 Retail’s Big Show

“You don’t have to load up on cans of tuna and go into your basement.”

That was the reassuring message from CNBC senior economics reporter Steve Liesman during his keynote address at NRF 2024 Retail’s Big Show.

Liesman went on to explain that with inflation easing, wages remaining steady, unemployment rates staying low, and interest rates inching lower short-term, fears of recession have all but subsided.

For anyone in and around retail or in-store marketing, this is very good news.

The rollercoaster ride of the pandemic years (and the revenge spending that followed) is now firmly in the rearview. Things are leveling off and becoming a bit steadier and more predictable. NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay shared that retailers are coming off a successful holiday season and heading into a sustainable 3%-4% expected sales growth trajectory.

To be sure, it’s still an unusual economic environment, according to Sucharita Kodali, VP, Principal Analyst, Forrester Research, who said that consumers have actually spent more on food in particular in years past. This behavior has been driven largely by inflation—oftentimes people are trading down in grocery and in other categories to make the dollars make sense.

With this in mind, the key to winning in the environment ahead is to understand the consumer mindset, said Shay.

There will be a premium on execution, and those that execute at a high level will be successful.”
Sucharita Kodali VP, Principal Analyst, Forrester Research

So what exactly is that mindset?

Consumers, Shay shared, have growing expectations for value as well as seamless experiences across digital and physical stores.

This omnichannel, or “phygital” experience is paramount—and one of the top themes of the event—echoes Levi Strauss & Co. incoming CEO Michelle Gass. She described omnichannel as the future of retail, with the ability to diversify and transform as a requirement to be a best-in-class retailer.

“I think in the coming year, there’s a recognition that there will be a premium on execution, and those that execute at a high level will be successful.” Shay said.

Ready to execute in-store marketing at that high level needed? Here are the top five in-store marketing themes and takeaways you need to know from NRF 2024 Retail’s Big Show.

1. Customer Centricity

Today’s retail leaders need to take the old adage “the customer is always right” to the next level.

It’s not about customer being “right” anymore. It’s about being a “consumer-obsessed company” according to Steven Williams, CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America.

And that obsession needs to come from every angle and every level of an organization.

Anshu Bhardwaj, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Walmart Global Technology and Walmart Commerce Technologies, described it best. Her team “starts with the customer first” and asks, “what do we want to solve for our customers?”

Bob Eddy, BJ’s chairman and CEO, looks at everything through the lens of what the customer needs. “I know my customers want fantastic brands at wonderful value, and they increasingly want a more and more convenient format,” he said. Marissa Jarratt, EVP, Chief Marketing & Sustainability Officer at 7-Eleven agreed. According to Jarratt, the iconic c-store brand should “be open-minded, seek to understand, and listen to” its customers to better understand their behavior and deliver on their needs.

Similarly, Dave Kimball of Ulta Beauty shared that the company doesn’t look at guests through a demographic lens, but rather the psychographic lens, working to understand them more deeply regardless of age or any other segmentation.

2. Value

Value continues to reign supreme as, despite improving economics, consumers are still under inflationary pressure.

But value is not always about getting the most for their money—it’s also about convenience and added value.

Yael Cosset, Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President, The Kroger Co., described how the company is using data to drive innovation and unlock access to both value and convenience for the consumer. Similarly, Diana Marshall, Chief Growth Officer of Sam’s Club, asked, “How can we lower the price point without sacrificing the quality to better serve this pressured consumer?”

No matter what happens with inflation or consumer spending, Eddy said, “Value always wins. So that’s my job—I need to make sure that we have the right partnerships, the right products, the right procedures to be able to offer that value.”

Sustainability is the ultimate team sport. Nobody can do this alone”
Steven Williams CEO, PepsiCo Foods North America

3. Values

No, that’s not a typo.

Honing in on a different kind of value, sustainability, and ESG efforts continued to take centerstage.

In an inspiring keynote session, Ed Stack, 2024 Visionary Award recipient and Executive Chairman of DICK’S Sporting Goods, explained consumers today are looking for accountability from the businesses they frequent. They pay attention to how these brands treat employees and the communities they serve.

“It’s important to step up and make statement,” says Stack.

Glossier, Inc. CEO Kyle Leahy agrees, saying that successful brands stand for something.

This is true for all consumers—from luxury shoppers to bargain seekers.

According to Anusha Couttigane, Head of Advisory at Vogue Business, luxury consumers equate value to how a brand treats its environmental commitments as much as the value of the brand’s products.

On the other end of the spectrum, Eddy echoed that sentiment. BJ’s Wholesale Club shoppers want the best quality but also ethically sourced products, he said. And the lines are blurring as luxury shoppers are increasing trading down, shoppers of all types are not shy about seeking out deals or frequenting value retailers.

As a result, retailers must design for circularity and sustainability if they want to connect dots to the consumers’ value system, said Anton Vincent, President of Mars Wrigley, North America & Global Ice Cream at Mars Inc.

“Sustainability is the ultimate team sport. Nobody can do this alone,” said Williams. It’s about doing the right thing for people and for the planet. That’s why PepsiCo works shoulder to shoulder with partners up and down the value chain to address climate change.

“Success isn’t possible without having everyone at the table,” he remarked.

4. Evolving the In-Store Experience

“What do you need to use stores for?”

That was the central question behind one of the most well-attended sessions, where Lee Peterson, EVP, Thought Leadership at WD Partners shared insight from a recent survey of 2,500 consumers. 63% of those surveyed said they prefer to shop online—2.5x what it was just five years ago. Shopping online has become easier and more convenient, thanks in large part to the advancements made during the pandemic.

As a result, Peterson said, shopping in-store has narrowed into a task: Find an item, buy it, exit.

Shopping in-store is no longer the great American pastime it once was.

Retailers and consumers alike have been trained to make stores and use stores like websites. The truth is that today you don’t really have to go to a store for anything.

You have to want to go to a store.

Peterson suggested that we need to refocus on creativity in the in-store environment. Brands need to do something different to stand out.

Ulta Beauty is doing just that by focusing on the human connection. “Everything we do, every effort we have, starts with idea of human connections,” explained Kimball. People come to Ulta stores to touch, feel, and smell the product—and to interact one-on-one with store associates. So the brand is continually looking for ways to complement that human experience—through innovation, services, and beyond.

For direct-to-consumer brand BÉIS Travel, pop-up experiences allow them to have that human experience and connect with their customers IRL, according to Shay Mitchell, Founder and Chief Brand Officer.

Leahy agrees. Glossier’s physical stores are a place to build community, create an experience, and surround the customer in the brand 360 degrees. Leahy says that the stores are an “important growth driver” for the brand and described them as “four-walls profitable.”

What’s more, brick-and-mortar stores tend to be favored by younger generations, says Linda Li, Head of Customer Activation & Marketing, H&M Americas. Li explains that the in-store experience allows for more personalization and experiences that can be differentiated—from location-based Spotify playlists and fragrances to one-on-one advice on products, fashion, and trends. “This all helps build a differentiated shopping experience and bring the brand to life,” said Li.

And if experience reigns supreme, no segment does it better than the luxury segment.

High-touch experiences, like the 1,345-square-foot Moët & Chandon Champagne Bar at Harrods in London, help communicate the quality behind the product. Shoppers sample the full range of Moët & Chandon cuvées by the glass, as well as enjoy food pairings and order by the bottle. Philippe Schaus, CEO of Moët Hennessy described it as “miles away from your bottle on a shelf in a liquor store.”

Even within the food retailer environment, experience is key.

Cosset described how Kroger is using technology and AI to inform in-store marketing, merchandising, promotions, and pricing—right down to the assortment featured on the store shelves.

Today’s in-store experience all comes down to this:

“Everyone wants to figure out a way to make sure the consumer is having the best experience,” according to Marc Metrick, CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue.

5. Technology

At times, it felt like the event was “AI’s Big Show” instead of “Retail’s Big Show.”

Countless sessions and exhibitor booths tried to parlay the hottest buzzword into their raison d'être—with varying degrees of success.

To be sure, AI is a topic the industry needs to grapple with.

As such, NRF recently released its Principles for the Use of Artificial Intelligence in the Retail Sector, while new research from Google Cloud found that 81% of retail decision-makers feel an urgency to adopt generative AI technologies.

Salesforce Chair and CEO Marc Benioff shared some reassuring words regarding AI and ethics: “Technology is not good or bad; it’s what you’re doing with it that matters.”

To that end, rather than replacing employees, Bhardwaj said AI helps Walmart workers evolve and makes them “superhuman” by “putting expertise at their fingertips.” This can help make both customers’ and associates’ lives less stressful so that the focus can be on delivering the best experience possible.

So what should in-store marketers make of all these themes and takeaways?

The speed of retail is rapidly increasing. As Levi’s Gass said, in order to win, businesses need to be more agile and “faster than the market.”

She also advises “to never forget a brand is one of your most important assets... if you don’t have a strong brand, it’s going to be really, really tough.”

But if you can take away one thing from NRF 2024 Retail’s Big Show, it should Ed Stack’s key message:

In retail, it’s all about teamwork. It’s no different than sports. When vendors, partners, and brands are all working together toward one goal, we can accomplish just about anything.

What does 2024 have in store for you? We can’t wait to help. Talk to us today →

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