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From Community Hubs To In-Store Theater, Retailers Double Down In Digital At NRF

The National Retail Federation‘s annual convention may have come and gone but the sentiments, strategies and lessons learned from facing nearly a year of pandemic-led changes by some of the world’s largest merchants are going nowhere fast — especially when it comes to their embrace of increased digitalization.

In dozens of virtual presentations and remote round table discussions that took place over the past two weeks, the overarching impact of the coronavirus was a dominant theme, whether that be surviving it, adapting to it or embracing teachings from it.

“For us the pandemic has been an accelerant to change, and a key learning experience. One thing we’ve learned is that stores are still important. For luxury, especially, it’s the theater: People want to see the show,” Marc Metrick, president and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue told one group. “We’re not a data company. We’re not an internet company. We’re a fashion company,”

Metrick also outlined a 3-point “Luxury Disrupted” strategy which consisted of edicts such as don’t forget the fashion, make it easy for customers and the need to use data to improve both online and in-store shopping experiences.

The Digital Shift Is Permanent

While there is no denying the digital shift that has occurred since the lockdown last March, many of the retailers attending the conference said they were fortunate to have had systems in place already that allowed them to embrace the surge when it happened. Over the past 10 months, that embrace has been retooled and refined to the point where today the IT department appears to be embedded in the marketing department.

“There’s been a real behavior shift over to digital [and] that won’t go away,” said Celeste Burgoyne, president, Americas and global guest innovation at lululemon. “At the same time, stores are still really, really important,” she added, pondering the company’s expectation of further change regarding the way it uses its 500 stores.

Stores As Social Centers

At the same time, Travis Boyce, head of global retail operations at fashion sneaker maker Allbirds seemed to straddle the benefits of both selling formats.

While happy to have accelerated its omnichannel efforts this past year, Boyce said Allbirds was also “committed to the bricks-and-mortar channel for the long haul,” noting the social benefits stores will provide to local communities once people are able to get out freely again.

Shopify‘s director of product, Arpan Podduturi also embraced his company’s growing stable of digital upgrades including a new point of sale system, buy online pickup in-store, curbside pickup and local delivery, as well as its backing for social commerce.

“We started granting more capital to small merchants, and just kept doing deals with social commerce players because we just felt like, wherever commerce was happening, was where we wanted to be,” Podduturi said.

The Future Of Remote Work

One of the forward-looking issues addressed by digitally native pet supply retailer Chewy was the uncertainty over how the shift to remote work would change one the pandemic eases.

“We’re making the best decision today, based on the information available today. Tomorrow may be different, ” Chewy CEO Sumit Singh said, before pondering “Where is everybody going to work?”

This logistical question and the ability to get products delivered “the final mile” to where people are was one of five key points raised by PYMNTS’ Karen Webster in a recent post analyzing the macro trends affecting retailers.

“The ‘Amazonification of retail’ isn’t just because Amazon made it easy for consumers to find what they want to buy among the 350 million products in its marketplace and then pay for it,” Webster wrote. “It’s also because Amazon made it fast and easy for consumers to get what they want to buy — and for an Amazon Prime member to get it delivered fast and for free.”

What Can Stores Do For Me?

Another area of change reshaping retail within the “bring-it-to-me economy” is the notion that stores need to do more to serve customers and their communities, especially since studies show consumers increasingly want to shop from home.

“Gen Z has definite expectations about what a business is: It’s not just here to provide an item, it’s also here to improve the society and community in which it operates,” Abigail Kammerzell, U.S. sustainability manager for H&M told the NRF conferees. “Having grown up as digital natives,” Kammerzell said, “they understand — maybe better than any preceding generation — how to access information. And they’re really demanding about it,” she added.

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