Big Focus For NRF17: Developing A Digital Talent Pool For Retail

Can big retailers solve store traffic problems by imbuing employees at all levels with omnichannel skills?

The NRF kicked off its Big Show conference with an industrywide initiative designed to produce a wave of omnichannel-based technological know-how among retail employees from entry level to the c-suite.

Following a holiday season that saw e-commerce sales by the likes of Amazon surge while brick-and-mortar businesses struggled, the 33,000 attendees of the NRF Big Show at New York’s Javits Center saw the heads of Walmart, Macy’s, and Ashley Stewart introduce an educational project designed to inspire talents to help stores better meet consumers’ demands across social media, mobile commerce, and cross-channel experiential marketing.

Over 20 companies are pledging their support to create “the next generation of the retail workforce,” including the three retail chains mentioned above along with Brooks Brothers, The Home Depot, The Kroger Co., L.L.Bean, Lowe’s, Neiman Marcus Group, Under Armour, Vera Bradley, Walmart, The Wendy’s Company, White Castle, and Williams-Sonoma Inc.

NRF17 Shines A Light On Talent
NRF17 Shines A Light On Talent

Combating Customer And Employee Retail Flight

The effort, dubbed RISE Up (for “Retail Industry Skills & Education”), takes direct aim at the high turnover from retail as competition from startups and other tech ventures have depleted the corps of social media marketers, data scientists, and sales associates who look to more dynamic startups to further their careers.

“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves to attract consumers,” Macy’s CEO/Chairman Terry Lundgren said in a panel discussion on Sunday with Greg Foran, president/CEO of Walmart U.S., and James Rhee, executive chairman/CEO Ashley Stewart. “And we’re doing that. With that, comes the talent requirements. Two years ago, we didn’t have a team solely dedicated to data and analytics; now we do.”

Lundgren described the standard Big Data problem of having massive amounts of consumer information contrasted with a paucity of actionable insights. Retailers need new capabilities to “fine-tune” all the info on customers that they’ve accrued in order to predictively analyze what shoppers want next.

“We want to know how to get in front of them and encourage them to make a transaction while they’re in the store, as opposed to when they’re on their way home after thinking about whether they’re going to make their next purchase from us or others,” Lundgren said.

A retailer’s ultimate goal, Lundgren said, alluding to a conversation he and Walmart’s Foran had backstage, is to develop the methods and processes that ensure unique and desired consumer goods are only available “in our shop.”

“The worst thing that can happen is when a vendor says, ‘We have 2,800 items in our assortment. No one wanted these 400 — so we want to offer them exclusively to your store.’ That’s what we want to avoid,” Lundgren said. “That’s where that merchant skill comes in. We want someone who can say, ‘This is what we need; this is what I want you to develop for my customers and my stores.’ I do believe there’s an instinct that staffers need to have, but there is a lot that can be learned when it comes to retail fundamentals.”

The One Retail Attribute That Resists Commodification

Retail’s expansiveness and complexity require a major project to drive necessary change through all stratas of the business. As Lundgren noted, one-in-four jobs in America are retail-related.

But seeding the ground to grow different forms of intelligence and capabilities must also reflect a degree of flexibility to balance the various category callings that need to filled. Not everyone is going to be a technologist; not everyone is going to work for an online business, Lundgren said.

But most everyone in America has a smartphone. And when they come into your store, they already have an established point of view about a product they want to buy, Lundgren added.

Fostering the capacity to meet that reality is the purpose of the NRF effort and why so many companies are participating, said Foran.

“To ensure success, I think all of us recognize that an interaction that occurs in a store or on a website, what all of us are striving to do is to create a sticky relationship with the customer that says, ‘I want you to come back and transact with my brand because I’ve given or done something that has some lasting value.’” Foran said. “It’s a changing world and that’s why we’re invested in RISE Up.”

Ashley Stewart’s Rhee picked up on the idea of delving into what values ultimately influence a shopper towards buying online or in a store and how this discussion of talent and recruitment touches on all the issues affecting retail. In a word, it comes down to defining — or perhaps, “redefining” — notions of customer value.

On top of his stewardship of Ashley Stewart’s 89 locations, Rhee also talked about his personal interest in “impact investing.” Those endeavors are often equated with projects such as solar energy.

But in Rhee’s view, “To me, the biggest impact investment you can do is give someone a job so they can feed their family. And I’ve never lost sight of that. My most formative job was making $3.35 an hour washing dishes at Red Lobster. I worked hard and it gave me that start.”

That experience informs the way he has led at Ashley Stewart.

In looking at what trends retailers must concentrate on in terms of acquiring insights into key customer shopping behavior, Rhee pointed to “transparency” as the underlying value consumers were looking for today.

“You can’t hide anymore,” Rhee said. Whether you think that’s good or bad, the massive exposure on social media, as a company, as a person, there is increasing demand to know what it is you stand for and where you source your products from.

“With transparency, consumers indicate that definition of a great product,” Rhee comtinued. “As retailers, we talk about consumers’ expectation for great service, and a fantastic marketing experience. Whether you like Amazon or not, that company provides transparency about pricing and product. You have to differentiate yourself in something else as well. And that place is culture. One of the things that can’t be commoditized are people. Everyday, I stress values. And when you do that, you attract great people. And the customers sense that.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.