The store has been the star at this year’s NRF Big Show. Of more than 100 speaker sessions, around a fifth were dedicated specifically to bricks-and-mortar retail, not including omnichannel/cross-channel discussions.

This tells us two interesting things. Firstly, the store is still the heartland of customer experience. As my colleague, Tim Barton, will discuss in our upcoming webinar with the British Retail Consortium, there is a huge appetite for physical shopping. However, the store now operates in an omnichannel context, and this is shaping what consumers expect from their bricks-and-mortar encounters.

This leads me on to point two. The fact that so many eminent retail strategists are discussing what the store of the future looks like, where it fits into the channel mix, and how retailers can better utilize data to increase customer satisfaction, indicates that there is no single answer to meeting shopper expectations. It’s up to individual organizations to determine what works best for them.

NRF 2016 certainly proved that there are brands and retailers capable of finding their own version of the truth. One standout session was with Michele Buck, North America President at The Hershey Company, who spoke on turning big data into micro-insights. Confectionary is a very exciting and evocative retail sector; most people have an affectionate relationship with chocolate. Yet Hershey found that the purchasing experience was more stressful than exciting.

Putting the fun back into confectionary shopping has been a major focus for Hershey over the past 12 months, and it has collaborated with 15 North American retailers in order to bring its ideas to life. Techniques have included product optimization, evolving the self-checkout experience, and reinventing merchandising at the shelf edge.

‘A collaboration of customer knowledge, not just transacting on product sales,’ was Ms. Buck’s summary of Hershey’s brand/retailer relationship following this exercise – an approach which has potential far beyond the confectionary sector.

Increasingly, retailers are looking to form more two-way relationships with partners other than brands – technology vendors, for example – in order to develop methods for attracting more customers, converting more sales and keeping shoppers happy.

In the case of the retailer/tech vendor relationship, in order for this meeting of minds to be successful, retailers first need to understand their customer behaviors inside-out. Then, instead of trying to guess how they can adapt to those behavior patterns, they should turn to a technical partner; one that has the retail technology in place to elevate bricks-and-mortar experiences, and tailor solutions to the retailer’s unique customer requirements.

This concept of collaborating more closely to better serve the customer is only going to become more prevalent in retail. Every business has its own, unique strengths, and the challenge is to partner with other organizations that have complementary skills, in order to exceed shopper expectations.

If NRF’s Big Show demonstrates one thing, it’s that we are part of an incredibly exciting industry that is innovating more quickly than ever around the customer’s needs. However, ultimately, it is each retailer’s individual responsibility to take inspiration from those at the fore of the retail industry – to find out who their customer is, what they want, and deliver it in the most effective way possible. And partnering with the right technology company can alleviate some of this pressure.

As Ms. Buck poignantly remarked during her NRF session, ‘it is our job to bring consumers into the store’. Hershey and other retail leaders are already showing us that bringing in new revenue means thinking outside the box.

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