Key takeaways from NRF 2021

By Adrienne Beck

As any retailer that managed to endure 2020 will tell you, resiliency is critical but it’s also not enough. The most successful brands over the past year did more than simply batten down the hatches and weather the storm. If there were any winners in 2020, they were the companies who adapted and continued to move forward.

NRF 2021 was an event unlike any other because of these fresh perspectives gained from the global pandemic. Leaders across the industry discussed how brands and retailers must adopt new methodologies and solutions to help them move beyond their current – and now, outdated – approaches to the market and position themselves for future success.

Here are our key takeaways from NRF 2021.

Retailers must look beyond the “new normal.”

This period of severe disruption has sparked unprecedented innovation and perseverance regarding what can be accomplished even when facing the most difficult challenges. As a result, several industry leaders are optimistic about 2021 and beyond.

COVID-19 reinforced the importance of boldness and agility, often forcing retailers and brands to rapidly develop, accelerate and implement plans far ahead of schedule. The new challenge for the industry will be to anticipate what comes next. Marc Metrick, President and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, suggested that retailers should think less about the “new normal” during such a volatile period and more about the “next normal” – how the market will look and behave after the pandemic.

Similarly, Andrea Bell, Director of Insight for WGSN, pointed out that as soon as we get comfortable with a new normal, another challenge is introduced for consumers and marketers alike. Carrie Tharp, VP of Retail for Google, also noted the importance of investing early in discovery so that you can solve for the future instead of for what you need at the moment.

Ritual is more important than ever.

Andrea Bell also discussed the “quarantine paradox”, a phenomenon that has emerged during COVID-19, in which time seems to both speed up and slow down. Days drag on but the months fly by. Further, many of us are experiencing a disconnect between our internal biological clocks and the amount of time we would normally spend in social situations. This “social jet lag” caused by isolation can lead to increased anxiety, stress, inability to process emotions and even heart disease.

Rituals, routine and planning for specific points in time can alleviate this stress and anxiety by helping us plan moments to safely spend with other people, whether it’s in day-to-day activities, celebrations or other major events. Weather platforms are a means for maintaining such routines because they connect to temporal moments around which consumers can schedule their lives. In fact, 68% of The Weather Channel app’s users say that weather has become more important to them since the beginning of the pandemic. Eighty-four percent check the weather daily (if not more often).

AI is the next step in the digital transformation of retail.

Ecommerce grew exponentially in 2020 due to social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines. While this trend is expected to somewhat normalize as people begin returning to physical stores, online shopping will likely remain much more popular than before COVID-19. This continued growth of digital retail will not only address consumer and brand needs, but also generate vast amounts of data that can be used to better understand and engage with shoppers.

But as Carrie Tharp said, not all data is a signal. Marketers will need AI to help harness the vast amounts of new data, prioritize what is important and use that insight to deliver experiences that are effective, efficient and personalized. Marvin Ellison, President and CEO of Lowe’s, remarked that the most effective technology is often that which no one sees but that leads to superior, more personalized customer experiences.

It’s time to break the cycle.

The shift caused by COVID-19 and upcoming changes to policies regarding cookies and other personal data will require retailers to break the cycle of their traditional approaches and find new ways to create meaningful connections with consumers and predict how activations will resonate.

IBM Watson Advertising solutions use AI to help retailers drive deeper consumer engagement, awareness, action and affinity while also supporting personal privacy. For example, IBM Watson Advertising Accelerator is designed to increase engagement by rapidly learning the optimal mix of creative elements for each audience group without needing cookies or personally identifiable information. Unique experiences are served to each group based on anticipated message resonance to help improve conversion rates. The solution also reveals robust insights that can be applied to future campaigns, helping you better prepare for the next normal.

To learn more about IBM Watson Advertising Accelerator, visit our website.