48 Hours That Changed Retail Forever

The early morning hours of June 16 started like any ordinary Friday. Then came Amazon’s shot heard round the world, its boldest move yet in the retail revolution as the online giant announced its acquisition of Whole Foods Market. Journalists, retail analysts and PR teams shifted into hyper-drive to analyze the news before they’d even had a chance to finish their morning coffee.

The Whole Foods deal, however, was just one of a series of events, all in a 48-hour period, that will change retail forever. Here’s a quick recap:

On June 15, German discount grocer Lidl opened its first U.S. stores, as Lidl’s U.S. CEO told Supermarket News that Lidl intended “to beat the best prices in the market.” U.S. grocers, already under assault from Walmart, Amazon Fresh, Aldi, Kroger and a horde of other competitors, are feeling renewed pressure from Lidl’s appealing store design, innovative merchandising, high product quality and ultra-low prices (12 to 30 percent lower than competitors’ published promotions, according to Supermarket News.)

In any ordinary week, Lidl’s U.S. arrival would have been the week’s top retail story. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, however, was the biggest jolt to retail and grocery in several years – even more significant that Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com last year. At the end of the day, other grocery stocks plummeted as the financial markets grasped the strategic significance of the Amazon-Whole Foods deal.

That acquisition almost drowned out another key event on Retail’s Freaky Friday – Walmart’s $310 million acquisition of trendy menswear retailer Bonobos. Walmart has been on a major spending spree on digital brands as it squares off against Amazon, and its latest purchase follows on the heels of its acquisitions of innovative retail startups Jet.com, Moosejaw, Hayneedle.com, Modcloth and Shoebuy.

Taken together, these events mark a watershed moment in retail, particularly in the grocery and apparel segments. And while most of the retail media coverage this year has focused on the so-called “retail apocalypse” marked by thousands of store closings, the real story in retail is far more complex and exciting. The retail industry is undergoing an intense time of transformation and reinvention, and the news from Lidl, Amazon and Walmart underscores the fast-paced disruption of established retail models.

Is retail becoming simply Amazon, Walmart and everyone else? I don’t think so – for one thing, disruptors such as Warby Parker, Pirch, Paul Evans, Outdoor Voices, TOMS, Shinola, Lidl and hundreds more are enjoying solid growth and can quickly build a passionate, loyal fan base. Fashion incubators are springing up from New York to San Francisco and beyond. Yes, some of these companies will get acquired by a Walmart or Amazon – but many more will grow into strong, mature companies that will keep an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit.

It’s no accident that so much technology innovation today is focused on the retail industry. According to IHL Group’s research, Amazon spent more than $15.1 billion on innovation in 2016, more than the top 20 U.S. retailers combined. IHL calls this the TIGIR (Technology Innovation Gap in Retail) and says retailers must dramatically increase their technology spending to compete. The industry is making strides. Zappos, Walmart, Neiman-Marcus, Lowes and many other retailers have their own innovation labs, Kwolia’s Retail Innovation Lounge was a hit at SXSW and Shop.org, and technology accelerators such as REVTECH are nurturing early stage tech startups in retail, grocery and restaurants (Ketner Group is a proud sponsor of both).

It’s an exciting, disruptive time in retail. Our team at Ketner Group is fortunate to work with many of the technology companies that are enabling retailers to compete against the Amazon-Walmart juggernaut, giving retailers, grocers and other businesses the technologies they need to drive sales, profits and customer engagement. As the events of June 15 and 16 demonstrated, retail is changing forever – but the story is far from over. Stay tuned; it’s going to be a wild ride.

Can Teslas and Pizza Get People Shopping Again?

A recent Washington Post headline read, “Unemployment is down. Gas prices are low. Why isn’t America shopping?”

There are a number of possible answers. Both in the article and at the inaugural ShopTalk conference, there were numerous discussions about the U.S. being “over-retailed” – too many stores and e-commerce sites for too few shoppers. Many like to point to widespread uncertainty about the global economy and the twists and turns of the presidential election. Moreover, shoppers are spending their money differently: they are addicted to promotions and often opt to spend their hard-earned dollars on experiences like vacations or big projects like home improvement. But these don’t explain the whole truth.

In reality, the shopping experience can all too often be downright awful. On a recent weekend I spent five minutes at a big-box office products store waiting for someone, anyone to show up at the empty cash registers at the front of the store. I didn’t really feel like chasing anyone down, and I’d only gotten half of what I came for, as the pens I wanted were out-of-stock. After a few minutes of waiting I started comparing prices on Amazon. No surprises here: I found everything I wanted at a lower price, so I left my purchases at the register, walked out the door, and placed the order before I left the parking lot. It’ll likely be the last time I visit that retailer for basic office supplies.

My wife didn’t fare much better at a women’s apparel store that weekend. She stood in line at the register for what seemed an interminable amount of time waiting to pick up an order, which turned out to be a different size from what she ordered. When she headed back to the counter to order it in the right size, the sales associate promptly announced she was headed to lunch, leaving my wife stranded at the cash wrap. She placed her order online later that afternoon; however, her 40% off coupon code didn’t apply online, even though the coupon said nothing about online exclusions. It took a call to the e-commerce help desk to straighten it out – although the help desk operator couldn’t answer my wife’s questions right away, as the retailer’s systems hadn’t updated yet.

These problems fall into two broad categories: too few sales associates for many retailers (and a failure to properly train the ones they have), as well as outdated systems and disconnected technology. Is it any wonder that Amazon accounts for 1 in 3 shopping transactions, according to Internet Retailer?

Fortunately, the best retailers are making the right moves to re-energize retail and attract shoppers. Nordstrom, which consistently has some of the best sales associates in retail, is opening a small Tesla gallery at a high-end mall location. Target is spending $1 billion this year remodeling its stores and has launched 25 “stores of the future” in Los Angeles. Urban Outfitters, which recently set a Q1 sales record, firmly believes that “bricks and clicks are synergistic.” Urban bought the popular Vetri Family pizza chain last year and recently opened two flagship Anthropologie stores with “a petite shop, expanded jewelry and accessories, an intimates boutique, an 800 square foot beauty shop, a full-service shoe salon as well as over 6,000 square feet of home products,” according to RIS News.

These retailers, and many others, are clearly doing everything they can to get America shopping again. Retailers shouldn’t forget the fundamentals, though: Train your associates. And get those legacy systems to talk to one another, in real-time. Focus on these things – and continue to make stores fun, creative and innovative – and consumers will start shopping again. After all, you can’t buy a Tesla, get a makeover or get a slice of pizza while shopping at Amazon – at least not yet.

PR Spring Cleaning: Four Key Steps to Raising Your Company’s Media Profile

Spring is the season of new beginnings—and one of the busiest times of year for Ketner Group and our clients. We recently wrapped up our annual voyage to New York for the National Retail Federation conference, and are now getting ready to go full swing into SXSW 2015! KG clients are making exciting new product and customer announcements in the coming months, and we’re busily working with them on fresh ideas and opportunities for PR and marketing campaigns.

With Daylight Savings Time upon us in a little over a week, now is the time to do a bit of “spring cleaning” for your PR program. Believe it or not, retailers will soon be thinking about their new technology investments in preparation for the back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons, so it’s essential for technology vendors to keep up a high profile with PR and marketing campaigns.

What can companies do to kick start spring fever? Here are four simple suggestions:

Pick up the pace with press releases. Press releases are an essential way of gaining earned media coverage and creating buzz for your company. We love to see our clients generate one to two newsworthy announcements each month, as it’s a way to let key editors, analysts, influencers and prospects know your company is on the move.

Pitch, pitch, pitch. In today’s always-on news cycle, the media are hungry for content, and fall is ripe with opportunities. Holiday shopping will be one of the top business stories this fall and winter, for example, and many of our clients have story angles that feed directly into potential coverage in the coming months.

The key is to be relevant and creative. Do you or your customers have particular expertise that might be valuable to media? Then pitch your ideas; after all, the media is continually looking for interesting stories.

Focus on analysts. Industry analysts play a critical role in the technology ecosystem. How long has it been since you’ve briefed the key analysts covering your space? If it’s been 6-12 months or longer, it’s time for an update, regardless of whether or not your company is a client. After all, analysts need to understand your products, strategy and customer base in order to do their job; and since they often advise end-user companies on vendor selections, it’s essential that the analysts are up to date on your company.

Refresh your content. It’s no secret that content is king. Now is the time to refresh your website with fresh content, short videos, case studies, infographics, e-books, case studies and vehicles for telling your company’s story. Most of our clients’ software solutions have hefty price tags and solve critical business problems, so prospects will be on your site often to look for relevant, up to date content.

Friendly reminder from the Ketner Group – Don’t forget to set your clocks forward on March 8! Happy Daylight Savings Time day!

Ebola Relief in Liberia: Introducing #RetailFightsEbola

The Ketner Group team is fortunate to work with clients doing groundbreaking work in diverse technologies including mobile, cloud, supply chain, machine learning, advanced analytics and other innovative areas. We work with really smart people who are helping shape the future of how retailers interact with consumers, which is pretty heady stuff.

Every once in a while, though, we get to work on a PR campaign that is something special. And that’s certainly the case with #RetailFightsEbola, a campaign from the Retail Orphan Initiative (RetailROI) that’s rallying the retail industry to fight Ebola in Liberia. Ketner Group has been privileged to handle PR for the Retail Orphan Initiative since it began six years, but this latest campaign raises the bar even higher.

A quick word of explanation: RetailROI is a charitable foundation that brings together retailers, technology vendors and editors and analysts to make a difference in the lives of orphaned and vulnerable kids around the world. Rather than duplicate the work of existing charities, RetailROI provides grants to charities that are already on the front lines of providing care in some of the poorest countries in the world – including Liberia.

Working with its partner charities operating in Liberia, the #RetailFightsEbola campaign is rallying retailers, manufacturers and individuals to provide much needed medical and hygienic supplies to Liberia. The goals are two-fold:

  • Raise $1,000,000+ in donated goods from retailers and manufacturers. RetailROI is working to provide specific items requested by its partners and the Liberian Ministry of Health, including first aid supplies, as well as food, clothing and linens to help with practical aid and care for survivors and the more than 3,400 children that are newly orphaned from the disease.
  • Raise $250,000 in financial contributions from companies and individuals for immediate relief. The financial contributions will help RetailROI partners provide additional relief until the goods arrive. 100 percent of the funds go directly to Ebola relief – ensuring the funds go where they’re most needed.

Why Liberia? For starters, it’s one of the countries hardest hit by Ebola as well as one of the world’s poorest countries, with an average national income of only $412 USD per capita annually. Moreover, RetailROI has reliable partner charities on the ground, including a remarkable organization called More Than Me, whose original mission was to provide education and opportunity to the most vulnerable girls in Liberia’s West Point slum, but has recently expanded to combat Ebola.

“Liberia’s government is primarily focused on mobilizing hospitals, treatment centers and coordinating with others to help with the treatment and keeping order,” says Katie Meyler, founder of More Than Me. (Check out her recent photo journal from the Ebola crisis in Vogue.)  “When it comes to practical aid for those most at risk, the vast majority of the work and distribution is being done through community groups and non-government organizations with boots on the ground like us. Survivors of this disease lose everything; their entire household and belongings are burned to stop the spread of the disease, and several thousand survivors are now orphaned children.”

More Than Me and other RetailROI partners have reduced the number of new cases by up to 90% in some of the areas hardest hit by the disease, through education, community outreach and delivery of basic medical and hygiene supplies. These efforts have been so successful that the Liberian Ministry of Health reached out to them to expand their work to additional Ebola hotspots within the country – and that’s the impetus behind #RetailFightsEbola.

As Greg Buzek, co-founder and donor trustee of RetailROI, explains, “The goods that Liberia has requested are readily available from nearly any supercenter, drug, clothing or grocery store in the U.S. We are asking retailers and manufacturers to donate products at their cost from overstocks or out-of-season goods. This is retail’s chance to make a difference in the lives of people that desperately need our help at the source of the outbreak and will be key to helping contain this epidemic.”

Retailers or individuals who would like to get involved or donate to #RetailFightsEbola, please visit www.retailroi.org/ebolarelief for more information. Please help us spread the word!

Retailers Give Back Through RetailROI

Photo courtesy of RetailROI

RetailROI, the Retail Orphan Initiative, is a shining example of technology vendors, retailers and analysts working together to raise awareness of the plight of orphans worldwide. More than that, though, RetailROI, provides not only funds but volunteers who are willing to put in “sweat equity” to build schools, computer labs, children’s homes, clean water projects around the world.

Since its founding 5 ½ years ago, RetailROI has helped more than 139,000 orphaned and at-risk children through education, computers, food and medical care. The charity has funded more than 70 projects around the world, with 94% of the funds going directly to charity.

Ketner Group is proud to provide pro bono PR support to RetailROI, and in this week’s blog we’re spotlighting a recent trip to South Africa, where RetailROI provided funding and manpower to set up a computer lab for impoverished kids. A big shout-out to our client 360pi, who along with Intel helped provide the funding for a computer lab that includes 30 tablet computers and a server.

RetailROI volunteer John Orr, SVP of Retail for Ceridian, led the RetailROI trip to South Africa with charity partner LUO, which provides education and after-school care for young impoverished children in South Africa.  Below is his first-person account (provided courtesy of RetailROI):

How was your trip to South Africa?  

Amazing, joyful, and tearful all in one. Ria, who runs the school, lost her sister years ago when they were car jacked and her sister Korna was shot and killed.  She spent years trying to understand it and find her purpose in life and at the same time wishing she was the one who was killed and not her sister.  She came upon these orphans and kids in need and found it.  My niece Lindsay got involved 8 years ago and has raised monies to build a safe house on the school property and fund other improvements.  That’s how I got involved.

Who also helped and did heavy lifting?

Intel sent a team made up of individuals from all around the world (who had never met) and brought them in to work on this project. It’s fabulous that they overcame many obstacles to set-up the lab and train the teachers; within a week they had the students using the tablets for research, spelling, art and so much more.

What surprised you? 

Photo courtesy of RetailROI

I was floored that these kids, who have so little, had respect for the devices and simply used them as if they have been using them for months.  While they trained the teachers, my son, nephew and I kept over 60 children busy playing (they wore us out every day!)  We then helped support the children in their classes as they needed help with the tablets, and we were certain to praise their successful efforts.

What was the best part of your trip?

When any of those kids smiled they looked so beautiful and had so much to not smile about — they had a special glow about them that touched your heart, brought joy, then made you cry out of love. That was my best part.  I brought my son with me, and Lindsay brought her brother with her.  We not only enjoyed spending that time together, but shared in a very special moment – one we will never forget.  It was very humbling, and I want to go back as soon as I can to experience the true joy of it all and those beautiful children.

Anything else you would like to add? 

What great work RetailROI has done and will continue to do!  When people get involved in any way they can, they’ll experience some amazing things in their life.  Thank you, thank RetailROI, thank these retailers and solution providers, and thank those who take the initial step and don’t ask whether they can do it or not. Sometimes you just buckle up and go, and then when that roller coaster stops, you cannot wait to do it again.  If I can do it, clearly anyone can…we all can!

PR as Storytelling: What Flash Boys Teaches Us About the Art of Technology Storytelling

By Justin Hoch at http://www.jhoch.com (_MG_2932)

I’m a huge Michael Lewis fan. And like countless other readers, I’m eagerly devouring his latest book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list immediately after its publication.

Lewis is a gifted storyteller who excels in bringing previously obscure topics to life, as he did with the arcane world of baseball statistics (Moneyball), Michael Oher’s journey from the streets of Memphis to NFL offensive lineman (The Blind Side), and how subprime mortgages and Wall Street greed fueled the Great Recession (The Big Short).

Lewis has a particular genius for explaining and making us care about topics that were previously unknown to typical readers: think on-base averages in baseball, or real-estate derivatives. But he’s outdone himself this time: Flash Boys shines a much-needed light on the dark side of Wall Street and how insiders have gamed the system through high-frequency trading systems, creating an unfair advantage that’s measured in microseconds – about 1/200th of the amount of time it takes to blink your eyes.

It’s storytelling at its best, complete with heroes, villains and mind-boggling technology. And like the most important stories of our time, it’s touched off a national debate (complete with lawsuits and a U.S. Department of Justice probe).

At its heart, Flash Boys is a technology story. And for all of us who make our living in high technology PR and marketing, it offers important lessons in the art of telling compelling, believable stories. What can we learn from Michael Lewis’ latest best-seller? Here are a couple of principles to keep in mind.

Keep it simple. As technology PR pros and storytellers, our job is often to write about topics that are difficult to understand. We have to resist giving in to buzzwords and techno-speak, instead focusing on explaining features and benefits in everyday words that any business editor or reader can understand. Many years ago an Austin American-Statesman humor columnist poked fun at a press release I wrote in one of his columns, taking me to task for using one tech buzzword after another. True, he wasn’t the target audience (he grabbed the release from a business writer), but the lesson has stuck with me ever since: keep it simple.

Simplifying complex topics is part of Michael Lewis’ genius and one of the reasons he’s such a popular storyteller. As one reviewer notes, “When it’s Michael Lewis doing the writing, previously incomprehensible topics become clear as day. That’s dangerous stuff for financial types who fare best when their activities are dense and misunderstood, and perhaps a tad threatening to the rest of us in the writing trade who wish we could be in Lewis’ league. Even Grandma can read Flash Boys, understand it and be entertained by it.”

Keep it credible. Keeping it simple is only part of the equation; as PR pros, we also need to remember to keep it credible. That means stripping out the excess adjectives and adverbs; for a press release, is company XYZ really the “leading provider of (fill in your favorite tech phrase here)?” The best writing strips out unnecessary language and gets straight to the point, without the fluffy language or over-the-top adjectives that create a barrier to credibility.

Focus on your heroes. Flash Boys turns an obscure band of Wall Street brokers and technologists into heroes. Brad Katsuyama, the highly principled, mild-mannered trader who is the central figure in Flash Boys, comes alive as an ordinary person who asks tough questions when his computer systems start behaving differently during routine trades. And now, he’s seemingly everywhere: from the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine to 60 Minutes. He’s the hero at the center of the debate over high-speed trading, proof that every good story deserves a great cast of characters.

It’s a reminder to all of us that if your CEO or client has a unique or particularly inspiring storyline, put him or her at the center of the story. But what if you’re dealing primarily with a technology rather than a person – which is so often the case in technology PR? Then look for ways that the technology touches people in everyday ways they can easily relate to. Do everything possible to personalize it. Does the technology make people’s work routines easier, or allow them to work better, faster or more accurately? Then say it, as simply and cleanly as possible, using examples to drive home your point.

Even better, if your company or client has customers that are willing to talk, make them the focus of your press releases and PR outreach. After all, nothing is more believable than seeing how companies and individuals put technology to work in the real world. We may not be writing about the next Flash Boys, but as PR professionals, we’re charged with telling great stories. And writers like Michael Lewis can inspire us to do our very best.

 

NRF 2014: The REALLY Big Show

If you could sum up the NRF 2014 show in one word, it would have to be “big.” And this time, as attendees know, it was “REALLY big!”

Our Ketner Group team descended upon New York recently along with 30,000+ other NRF attendees, and the show was big in every way: More attendees than ever. More exhibitors on three different levels of the Javits Center. More social buzz (check out the #NRF14 social  infographic from the National Retail Federation). And for Ketner Group, a full schedule of editor and analyst meetings for our retail technology clients. It was an exhilarating, information-packed, exhausting event that underscored why NRF is THE “can’t miss event” for retail.

What were some of the big impressions we walked away with? Here are some thoughts based on the meetings I participated in, as well as a few other nuggets.

Omnichannel and Big Data were key topics. Despite all the buzz about omnichannel, there was widespread discussion about siloed channels, inconsistent pricing, and an inability to forecast and plan across channels. I came away convinced that true omnichannel retailing is still several years away, at least, for many retailers; one analyst said flat-out that “no one” is doing a good job in planning and forecasting omnichannel demand.

And while nearly every vendor claimed to be leveraging Big Data in some way, one analyst says that only 15% of Fortune 1000 companies will be prepared to use Big Data correctly by 2020. For all of us who make our living in retail technology, it’s a sobering reminder that there’s still a big gulf between hype and reality in some cases.

The really hot topic of discussion at NRF was data security; the Target and Neiman-Marcus security breaches were top of mind, and since the show, the news about security has only gotten worse. Clearly PCI compliance isn’t enough, especially when someone with inside knowledge can access information, as appears to be the case with Target. Suddenly, chip and pin is on its way to becoming a household word – and from my perspective, it can’t happen soon enough.

Don’t Fall Behind in PR: Four Steps to Raising Your Company’s Media Profile

Fall Sampler by Micky**, on Flickr

Fall is finally here. After 40 days of 100°-plus weather in Austin this summer, the temperature is dipping into the 60s in the mornings. Sure, we’re already back to the mid-90s this week, but the mornings are crisp, folks are breaking out the fall clothes, and there’s football galore. The Longhorns even won again this weekend, so everything’s right with the world.

Fall is the season of new beginnings—and one of the busiest times of year for Ketner Group and our clients. There are key conferences and trade shows (next week, Catherine and Caitlin will be at Shop.org with a number of our clients, for example). KG clients are making exciting new product and customer announcements in the coming months, and we’re busily working with them on fresh ideas and opportunities for PR and marketing campaigns.

As we mention on our Be Spectacled page, it’s no time to let your PR program “fall” back. After all, the next few months are a critical time in the technology sales cycle. Companies will select vendors for their remaining technology projects before the end of the year, and they’re also setting their 2014 budgets and deciding which projects to fund. It’s essential for technology vendors to keep up a high profile with PR and marketing campaigns.

What can companies do in the remaining months of 2013? Here are four simple suggestions:

Pick up the pace with press releases. Press releases are an essential way of gaining earned media coverage and creating buzz for your company. We love to see our clients generate one to two newsworthy announcements each month, as it’s a way to let key editors, analysts, influencers and prospects know your company is on the move.

Pitch, pitch, pitch. In today’s always-on news cycle, the media are hungry for content, and fall is ripe with opportunities. Holiday shopping will be one of the top business stories this fall and winter, for example, and many of our clients have story angles that feed directly into potential coverage in the coming months.

The key is to be relevant and creative. Do you or your customers have particular expertise that might be valuable to media? Then pitch your ideas; after all, the media is continually looking for interesting stories.

Focus on analysts. Industry analysts play a critical role in the technology ecosystem. How long has it been since you’ve briefed the key analysts covering your space? If it’s been 6-12 months or longer, it’s time for an update, regardless of whether or not your company is a client. After all, analysts need to understand your products, strategy and customer base in order to do their job; and since they often advise end-user companies on vendor selections, it’s essential that the analysts are up to date on your company.

Refresh your content. It’s no secret that content is king. Now is the time to refresh your website with fresh content, short videos, case studies, infographics, e-books, case studies and vehicles for telling your company’s story. Most of our clients’ software solutions have hefty price tags and solve critical business problems, so prospects will be on your site often to look for relevant, up to date content.

There’s much more, of course, but these are just a few ideas to get you started. What other suggestions do you have to give your PR and marketing campaigns a fall makeover? We’d love to hear from you.

Retail’s Reinvention: Back to the Future?

I’ve been reading and thinking about retail innovation a lot lately, which is no surprise. After all, many of our clients here at Ketner Group are retail tech companies, and retailers have been reinventing themselves at a furious pace in recent years as they seek new ways to compete with Amazon.

One of the things that intrigued me is a recent Reuters article about Walmart’s “radical plan” to have its customers deliver packages to online buyers. The plans are still in the early stages, but as the article explains, “shoppers could tell the retailer where they live and sign up to drop off packages for online customers who live on their route back home,” in exchange for a discount on their Walmart purchases. The retail giant’s ability to crowdsource its deliveries could make same-day delivery a reality, giving Walmart a potent edge over Amazon.

Will this plan ever see the light of day? At this point, it sounds far-fetched. But as one retail pundit pointed out, at least Walmart is thinking of creative ways to reinvent retail.

An article by retail futurist Doug Stephens draws an intriguing picture of what this future might look like. Stephens says “retail, as we’ve known it for at least the last two millenia, is coming to an end…it’s very clear to me that we are coming to a tipping point and data, processing power and connectedness lie at the center of it all.”

In the next decade, Stephens argues, retail will completely shift from a focus on ­physical and digital destinations and storefronts, to a focus on consumers as the ultimate destination. Instead of consumers deciding which stores and e-commerce sites to visit, retail will in essence start coming to us.

For example, according to Stephens, let’s say I’m on a business trip and my mobile device alerts me my anniversary is coming up in two days. A digital shopping assistant then springs into action—and it knows my wife’s shopping preferences so well that it presents a list of personalized gift suggestions in seconds, pulling information from a number of available storefronts. It finds the best available offer (my wife’s favorite fragrance on sale at Norstrom with a special bonus gift), then makes the purchase and arranges for the most convenient pickup or delivery option. The whole process takes under a minute.

It’s an intriguing vision from Stephens (aka The Retail Prophet). And the future that he describes is already taking shape. After all, the very best retailers compete for our business by analyzing our preferences, understanding our shopping habits, and delivering highly personalized recommendations and offers, sometimes anticipating our wants and needs before we even know we have them. (Check out the chapter, “How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do,” in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit for a fascinating account of how Target analyzes consumer data.)

With all these innovations, though, it seems to me that retailers are simply trying to recapture an era where individual store owners recognized their customers by name, knew their shopping preferences by heart, and conducted business as a series of highly individualized, one-to-one transactions. In earlier days, retail was a highly personal business, and merchant’s storefronts were focal points not just of commerce, but community. Did shoppers need something delivered to their home the same day? No problem, the store owner could arrange it. Did you almost forget your wife’s birthday? Luckily, your local retailer had a timely gift suggestion when you called in a last-minute panic.

So as retail reinvents itself, it’s really just trying to get back to its roots, seeking new ways to make large-scale, mass-market retailing more personal and intimate. Technology may be the enabler, but in the end, what retailers are really doing is going back to the future.

NRF 2013: What Editors and Analysts are Predicting

They don’t call NRF “Retail’s Big Show” for nothing! Ketner Group has attended NRF for the past 13 years, and year after year, it’s the ONE show that matters more than any other – and a great place to connect with retail’s leading editors and analysts. We asked a number of our friends in the editor and analyst communities to share their insights about NRF, and you’ll be interested in seeing their thoughts on retail trends, technologies, and the biggest surprises of 2012.

What will you be looking for at NRF 2013, in terms of retail trends and technology?

Jordan Speer, Editor-in-Chief, Apparel Magazine: Generally, I’ll be looking for technology that apparel retailers/brands are using. In particular, I’ll be interested to see how things continue to integrate to make a seamless omni-channel experience possible. It’s difficult for me to think of distinct technologies these days. It all goes together: Social media is connected to CRM is connected to loyalty is connected to POS is connected to mobile is connected to RFID is connected to fulfillment and so on and so forth. I’ll be looking for ways in which retailers are casting off the barriers between all of these solutions and getting the big picture of their enterprise.

Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, Retail Systems Research: What I’m looking for is practical usability of technology.  I have been hearing a lot of buzzwords – “mobility,” “the customer as part of merchandising processes,” “Big Data” (my current fave), “Cloud.” So what I would like to see is the nitty-gritty of what it takes to actually get the job done.  For example, “What does the user interface in a system that includes the customer dimension of data look like?”  “How do you manage 30,000 iPhones and iPads in your stores?”

Joe Skorupa, Group Editor-in-Chief, RIS News: I am looking for technology strategies and solutions that are responsive to the dramatic shifts taking place in the marketplace as well as those that enable retailers to become more pro-active and get ahead of fast-moving trends.

Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief, Retail TouchPoints: I am expecting to see more advanced solutions that address the data collection and analytics related to Big Data and omnichannel retail. Retailers like Macy’s are starting to focus more on allocating by individual store, based on the demographics and seasonality of each store. New solutions need to provide an easy way for merchants to make this happen.

I also anticipate more solutions targeted to mobile payments, and the requirements around EMV. Retailers need to be prepared to accept EMV when the April 2013 deadline rolls around. Additionally, by October 2015, fraud liability will shift in the marketplace, which could be an incentive for merchants to enable EMV transactions before that date.

Greg Buzek, Founder and President, IHL Group, and Co-founder of the Retail Orphan Initiative: I think we’ll see a lot of emphasis in three main areas.  The rise of Big Data and Social integration will be a major trend.  Mobile will be everywhere – in all flavors – iOS, Android, Windows 8; we will be past our first mobile Christmas.  And then there are the rapid changes in the POS industry.  We are seeing a seismic shift right now in threats to this business and a changing of the guard in established competitors.  And of course everyone will be talking about how great Retail ROI’s SuperSaturday was!

What have been the biggest surprises in the retail industry so far in 2012?

Joe Skorupa, RIS: This is the year of bold transformation of business models and instead of taking a cautious approach or battling it, retailers are embracing change and finding new opportunities.

Greg Buzek, IHL: The biggest surprise is the speed in which retailers have come out and said they are never buying another POS terminal again.  We haven’t even seen mobile survive a Christmas rush, and several retailers have already said they are all mobile from now on.

Jordan Speer, Apparel: I think the big surprises for me are the increasing shift to the “fulfill-from-store” model and also the sense that, in apparel, we are really on the edge of seeing technologies like “magic mirrors” and such start to materialize at the commercial level. One other thing – it has really hit home with me this year just how much Amazon truly presents a major threat to so many retailers. I am glad that many of them are addressing that and will be interested to see some of the clever ways that retailers use product and technology to keep customers in their brick-and-mortar or online stores.

Paula Rosenblum, RSR: I suppose it’s the explosion of mobile payments – or the apparent coming explosion.  Starbucks adopting Square and Home Depot adopting PayPal was a pretty big surprise.  Beyond that? That wireless is still just not prevalent.  And overall in the industry, that the luxury market is softening.  I honestly don’t understand why it’s happening.

What do tech vendors and PR people need to keep in mind as they reach out to you for NRF?

Debbie Hauss, Retail TouchPoints: We look forward to meeting with as many companies and retailers as possible during NRF, to discuss industry trends and announcements. The most productive conversations are around innovations and how we can help retail companies improve their businesses. Once again this year, Retail TouchPoints will be filming short video interviews with retailers and solution providers during the NRF event. If any companies are interested in participating in these videos, they should contact us as soon as possible.

Jordan Speer, Apparel: I always appreciate a brief synopsis of press releases announcing new technologies, along with information on which apparel companies are using the technology (if any). If they can’t reveal that info specifically, it is helpful to know at least what type of apparel companies are using it (big vs. small; specialty vs. department, etc.) In the synopsis, it is helpful also for me to understand if the technology (or process or whatever) being announced is a significant shift, or basically just an update of what’s been available. It’s also helpful for PR people to keep in mind that I am looking for apparel companies that will talk to us on various topics, including but definitely not limited to those on our editorial calendar.

Paula Rosenblum, RSR:  They should understand that we’d be happy to take pre-briefings and will be doing a webinar or something for our customers afterwards to review what we saw at NRF. I would imagine what they want to know from us (besides “do you like our stuff?”) is “What did you see that was cool?”  This year, we’re going to have time to actually answer that question adequately.  Heck, we might even attend some sessions!  After much thought, we realized it’s a way better way to add value.

Greg Buzek, IHL:  Vendors should have talking points in handout form either in the meeting or use the meeting as more relationship building and very short demos rather than marketing speak. We see between 12-18 sales pitches a day; what gets remembered is the one-pager with key talking points. What are the 3-4 things you want me to remember? Have that on a piece of paper or better yet, show me and email it to me while we are in the meeting (not “I’ll get that to you”) so I am sure to have it in my inbox when I get home.

Personally, I am buried in the materials from my own event, other interesting things and several bags of swag items from different events. Standard collateral material doesn’t make it home. An analyst is not going to pay extra luggage fees to carry home a bunch of glossy materials.

Like everyone else, we are sleep deprived and exhausted and we will have heard 40-50 company pitches and caught up with another 100 friends and colleagues. Vendors give the same pitch over and over; we hear 50 different ones. What gets remembered past the show is what is written down or on a single page handed to us – and the meetings with our friends.