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The top trends from NRF 2014

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Following his return from New York City, our Editor lists the top trends (in both technology and the retail experience) that emerged from this year’s bigger-than-ever National Retail Federation “Big Show”.

1. The return of the shopkeeper

It’s little wonder that bricks and mortar retail has lost its way. In our personal lives, we all rushed headlong towards new things. We scurried to the latest methods of keeping in touch, and migrated en-masse to the hippest online destinations. As a people, we expressed our collective preference for the most convenient ways of doing something we previously treated as a communal activity: shopping. In a scramble to keep up, retailers followed suit or freaked out, assuming (perhaps naively) that because everybody suddenly wanted to shop from home, everybody would always want to shop from home.

Retail very rapidly became about getting products into people’s hands as quickly as possible, throwing millennia’s worth of tradition out the window in the process. Today, consumers who miss the experience of shopping are instead gravitating towards the retailers who have embraced the role of the shopkeeper. Knowledgeable, personal, available, and expert, the shopkeeper knows you. He knows what you buy. She knows why you came in today. And if he or she doesn’t, they certainly know enough about their collections and your desires to help you find what you’re looking for.

Warby Parker edit

Today’s merchant might rely on big data and social analytics to get the job done, but his or her role finds its closest historical analogue in the old-fashioned, local shopkeeper. Both are armed with intimate knowledge of products and people, and both play a vital role in delivering the modern retail or brand experience.

2. Stop thinking channels, start thinking retail

This shouldn’t suggest, though, that bricks and mortar represent retail’s future. But neither do online stores, mobile applications or catalogues. A blended approach to multi-channel retailing – often called omni-channel, but more accurately, in 2014, called “modern retail” – aims to deliver a seamless experience however the consumer chooses to shop. This doesn’t just mean making sure the product images and descriptions look the same on your website as the garments do on your hangers, but rather making sure that everything about your business is consistent – online, in-store, or wherever else you find to sell.

Kate Spade popup

Stock information. Sales. Loyalty and engagement. The brand experience. Worrying about how to apply these to every different channel you serve is outdated thinking; today’s most successful retailers are focusing on delivering a consummate and connected shopping experience that remains consistent wherever their name appears.

3. Bleeding edge technology

The Javits Centre was again packed to bursting with technology when it played host to this year’s NRF convention and expo. This might sound like a given, but it should give each of us pause when we consider that “Retail’s big show” has become, in quite short order, “software’s big show”.

Technology woman centre

The two haven’t always gone hand in hand, after all. There’s nothing implicit in the act of selling that demands anything more technologically advanced than a product, a cash register, and some space to put them. What the heady convergence of retail and technology suggests, then, is that there is something fundamentally different about modern retail – something that differentiates it from its historical counterpart, and something that it absolutely requires technology to achieve. Look for our Editor’s full report on the show next week, when we’ll delve into the developing role of retail and product lifecycle technology.

4. Intelligence: the ace up your sleeve

The strapline for this year’s NRF show was “perspective elevated”, which might sound just vague enough to mean anything, but which is actually a fundamental tenet of what it takes to become a truly modern retailer or brand. In order to raise your game, you need to see and play at a higher level.

Developing this new perspective has always been the preserve of enterprise technologies like PLM, which have been built on delivering the promise of far-reaching intelligence and globe-spanning visibility. Delivering the right products to the right markets at the right time (and priced accordingly) becomes an awful lot easier when our decisions are based on an accurate and contemporaneous understanding of our products, our markets, our lead times and our margins.

Illusionist

That promise hasn’t become any less desirable since it was first made. Indeed, NRF 2014 was flooded with services and solutions offering to help retailers leverage the common currency of “intelligence”, suggesting that in order to deliver modern retail, we need modern methods of collecting and using intelligence. With those, the new promise goes, we’ll be able to achieve true insight and deliver transformative experiences at every stage of the product lifecycle – not just in-store or at the point of sale.

5. One source, many uses

Intelligence is crucial, but it’s nothing without direction or centralisation. An elevated perspective is something that a retailer or brand must achieve as a whole – not just in one particular department, one geographical location, or on a single platform. WhichPLM has long extolled the virtues of using PLM to consolidate and centralise master data, since this approach delivers the largest possible reductions in data redundancy, data duplication, versioning conflicts, and poor visibility.

Mobile and larger screen

The best PLM vendors have also always placed this capability high on their lists, enabling their customers to place all of their product data in a single location, accessible from anywhere, creating the fabled “single version of the facts”. But it’s that accessibility that came to the fore this year, with more and more vendors demonstrating how that single source of product information can be used to enrich everything from in-store experiences to materials management.

6. Trendy – in more ways than one

We are a technology-first publication, and as such it’s easy to forget sometimes that fashion runs on something with a far longer history than PLM or ERP. Our industry operates on style – on the micro and macro shifts in the tectonic plates of everything from haute couture to fast fashion. At least one person, though, feels that trend-setting has lost its way and needs to become more closely allied to real consumer demand. In an engaging presentation, noted trend forecaster David Wolfe argued that technological trends (the way we demand, make and consumer fashion) should be more closely mirrored in style trends.

David Wolfe NRF 2014

As Wolfe explained, he feels that catwalk shows and haute couture have become divorced from the world of actual fashion, which deems something viable only when enough people actually buy and wear it. Reductions in the time it takes to transform new, inspiration styles into viable products have always been at the forefront of customer demand when it comes to technological solutions like PLM, but Wolfe’s presentation made a strong case for a transformation in the way those trends are discovered, and the resulting products devised and acted upon – all driven by 21st century technology.

7. Making the case for mobility

Mobile devices were everywhere. And although this was no different from previous years – particularly considering that “mobile applications” emerged as one of our top picks for 2013 – we did begin to see more vendors coming to grips with precisely what mobility means. From a PLM perspective this means applications developed for specific use cases, such as factory and compliance audits, or mobile collection books – all of which can be synchronised for offline usage.

Surface tablet 2

For retail itself, things have come a little further. In an excellent keynote presentation that examined commerce’s place in the human experience (from the souks of Marrakech to the malls of today), CEO of disruptive payment processing company Square – not to mention Twitter chairman – Jack Dorsey touched on the power of location-aware applications that will leverage the analytical power of social media and geo-tagging to deliver in-store experiences that are not just gimmicks but that threaten to deliver an upheaval in the way we treat something as simple as the humble receipt.

8. The flip side of the fashion / technology coin

Finally, this year the inversion of fashion’s relationship with technology really began to crystallise. Technology has for a long time informed what we can do with fashion. It’s defined how quickly we can design and produce our clothes, and delivered improvements in our positioning of those garments, footwear or accessories relative to the consumers we want to reach and the margins we want to realise.

Nike shoes

Up until recently, though, this relationship has been one-sided. But 2014 will see the steady realisation of a bi-directional relationship between fashion and technology, as forward-thinking apparel brands and even digital lifestyle companies like Samsung and Apple begin to place new demands on not just the tools used to design their products, but the techniques, materials, and technologies incorporated into them. We’ve all seen 3D-printed shoes, but the rise of smart monitoring fabrics, wearable computing, and designs that can only be realised through revolutionary techniques will very soon turn tip the worlds of fashion and technology in a single melting pot.

The results will likely surpass all of our expectations.

Look for more NRF 2014 content in the coming weeks, including a comprehensive report on the show, interviews with all the leading PLM vendors, exclusive photography, and more.

Ben Hanson Ben Hanson is one of WhichPLM’s top contributors. Ben has worked for magazines, newspapers, local government agencies, multi-million pound conservation projects, museums and creative publications before his eventual migration to the Retail, Footwear and Apparel industry.Having previously served as WhichPLM’s Editor, Ben knows the WhichPLM style, and has been responsible for many of our on-the-ground reports and interviews over the last few years. With a background in literature, marketing and communications, Ben has more than a decade’s worth of experience, and is now viewed as one of the industry’s best-known writers.