In Retail

Once again, “Retail’s Big Show” is upon us. The NRF 2020 Vision website says “See why this year’s Big Show is nothing you’ve seen before.” To save myself the trip (and maybe you), I decided to do exactly that by taking a close look-see at how the content and agenda has changed from last year to this year. And importantly, what do the year-to-year differences tell us about the current state of the retail market and where it’s heading in the foreseeable future.

Prior to last year’s event, I published a blog highlighting the relative balance of topics. To do this, I examined the agendas of sessions, keynotes and other events at the show to make some generalizations about the topical emphasis in 2019. This approach admittedly has some flaws in that many of the topics are interdependent or could be perceived to be subsets and supersets of one another. However, I built a scoring system and used it consistently, with 3x higher weight on keynotes than sessions. And perhaps more importantly, I used the same system on last year’s analysis, so the year-to-year observations are certainly relevant. Specifically, I (tediously) examined the titles and abstracts from the entire agendas.

Last year (2019) resulted with the following:

NRF 2019 Topical Emphasis


The agenda for the upcoming January 2020 NRF Conference shows the following:


NRF 2020 Topical Emphasis

At first glance there are a lot of similarities between 2019 and 2020. But here are some takeaways from the year over year comparison:

  • Customer Experience continues to dominate the agenda. And, when you consider that omni channel and personalization are arguably part of the same conversation, it’s clear that the emphasis of the conference far more about how to engage the customer than it is about how to make great products, manage supply chains or enhance advertising. It’s all about the customer experience.
  • AI / ML / AR are growing fast. But again, this category is also about enhancing the customer experience, albeit with specific technology. This category, more than any other stands out as the most prominent technology-centric topic at NRF, with the biggest year-over-year growth by far. The hype level is peaking on these topics so it will be interesting to see if dreams turn to reality in 2020.
  • Security and Digital Trust are on the Rise. With little to no coverage last year, clearly retailers are increasingly concerned about the risks of storing and utilizing so much available information about their customers’ demographics, behaviors, preferences, and goals. Retailers need to strike the right balance between storing and leveraging data versus protecting themselves from cyber-attacks, data breaches, and the potential loss of digital trust.
  • Sustainability is soooo in. From non-meat burgers to biodegradable packaging to buying local, retailers are learning how eco-friendly practices can influence their brands, products, operations, customers, and bottom lines. Consumers are still unsure if these trends are about doing good for the world, or if they are simply ploys to boost brand identity. But whatever the reason, it feels like progress. It’s good to see that caring about the environment is cool.
  • Blockchain schmockchain. Well, the hype is over. It’s been more than 25 years since blockchain was conceived and more than 10 years since Bitcoin launched, and we’re still waiting to see if and how blockchain is going to revolutionize the world. Tick tock. I’m not holding my breath.
  • Cloud is so ubiquitous that it’s no longer a topic that draws an audience. It’s every bit as relevant as ever, but it’s now considered to be mature, available, affordable, reliable, secure, scalable, and easy. And… it is! Well done cloud – you’re so well known that nobody has any questions left.
  • Digital Transformation – not dead yet. I’ll admit it. I despised this term when it surfaced circa 2013. I thought it was nothing more than analyst jargon, to serve as another way to sell some research, white papers, and consulting. I thought this term would last for about three years tops. I was wrong. But regardless of the jargony name, the underlying concept of becoming a data-driven business is a current imperative for every mid-to-large size retailer. The justification and criticality of digital transformation is well understood, but the thought leadership concepts have become old hat, and the conversation has moved to the underlying tactics.
  • Data Platforms and Analytics both saw shrinkage. Remember, this analysis is a measure of topical coverage at NRF – not a measure of market size/growth. I suspect that this reduction in coverage in this category is actually a sign of increased digital maturity amongst retailers – as more retailers are successfully building/buying the data foundations on which retail-specific analytics apps can be deployed. Because “Data Platforms and “Analytics” are horizontal categories, the conversation in retail is now evolving toward the technical and business use cases that need to be developed with these platforms and analytics. And this brings me to the next surprise.
  • No increase for Personalization and Customer Journey. This surprised me, at first. I expected Personalization and Customer Journey to rise dramatically. I thought they would be plastered all over this year’s NRF. These terms and underlying concepts have gained significant momentum in retail since last year – especially hyper-personalization which seeks to combine individual personalized interactions into holistic connected experiences that incorporate all digital and physical touchpoints with real-time contextual interactions. However, this is another case where the pie chart could be misleading because both categories (Personalization and Customer Journey) are inextricably linked with Connected / Omni Channel and Customer Experience. Because of this, I am confident that there will be plenty of coverage of these topics, but it’s notable that the terms are not more prominent. Management of physical / digital customer journeys is a rising priority for retailers, but few retailers are doing it well. Again, I expected a higher proportion of the NRF 2020 session titles and abstracts to include these terms. This likely signifies a shortage in the availability of vendor solutions that can perform personalization and customer journey management. One such solution is TCS Connected Intelligence & Insights for Retail.

So what does this mean? In short, I am seeing a transition from “Imagine a world where…” to “Let’s make it happen now.” It reminds me of the “Show me the money!” quote from Jerry McGuire.

If you plan on going to the conference and would like to see how an out-of-box software solution can accelerate your goal to hyper-personalize the retail customer experience, please get in touch with us at We’ll show you how to make it happen faster, easier and more cost effectively. Until then – Happy New Year!

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