NRF Recap: IBM on Cognitive Tech, Claire’s on Global Expansion & More

I’m no stranger to conferences and trade shows. In fact, having coming from a publishing firm that covered the international textile and hospitality industries, I’ve seen my fair share of them in all shapes and sizes, all over the world. That said, I should not have been surprised by the size and scale of the National Retail Federation‘s BIG Show at Javits in New York City this week. But I was. Perhaps it’s because even though I write about and am immersed in the retail industry every day, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of seeing 30,000 of us in one place at the same time. It was, for lack of a better, more descriptive word, BIG. photo

While I can’t lie that perusing the booths and seeing the companies’ newest technology is certainly the most fun (IBM’s Watson demos drew a consistent crowd), listening to the keynotes was probably the most informative; providing some info that I can pass onto you here. Amid the BIG show, these were the small tidbits I gathered that I hope you agree are worth considering for the year ahead:

IBM‘s President, Chairman and CEO, Ginni Rometty, talked with Terry Lundgren, Chairman, President and CEO of Macy’s, Inc., about the future of technology and how it will affect retail. She predicts that the next level of technology will be cognitive – machines will be able to learn and prescribe, rather than just predict based on algorithms and search terms. Technology has always fallen into one of two stages, she said:
1) It counts
2) It programs
The third “era of data,” as she called it, will be the cognitive era.

– Rometty also described big data as companies’ most valuable asset and the most “valuable natural resource of our time.” She advised that we think about big data the way steam was thought about in the 1800’s.

– While many firms have invested in big data, and agree it is a necessary investment area, few companies know what to do with the data or how to use it long term. Rometty said that companies need to be able to use big data in three ways:
1) Descriptive
2) Predictive
3) Prescriptive
If you’re not using data this way, you’re missing massive opportunities for better customer retention and ultimately much higher revenues.

– The future is a mobile-first world. Lundgren and Rometty talked about this as fact, not as an “if” or a question. In fact, if your firm is questioning this, you’re already way behind.

– When it comes to expanding your brand globally, as many retailers present at NRF are already doing or are planning to do, Claire’s Stores CEO, James Fielding, says staying true to your brand is the most important facet. If you do not have a clear brand message in place in your home market, don’t even think about expanding beyond it, he said.

– A lesson learned from Zita Cassizzi, Chief Digital Officer at TOMS Shoes, is that the perception that global expansion can sometimes be more easily done digitally is both true and false. The TOMS brand has a very strong message that resonates globally and lends itself to globalization. However, it’s not an easy road to take your brand to so many countries and have them understand it through just the digital channel. Make sure your message – especially if it’s a strong one such as TOMS’ charitable contribution of one pair of shoes given for each one bought – can resonate across cultures without much need for “explanation.”