By Dave Hochman, Contributing Editor
The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual conference in New York City closed yesterday, Jan 15., but not before attendees were treated to five days of emerging retail trends and key consumer sales data.
NRF’s Big Show 2015 was geared towards an audience of senior level retail executives from around the world. The content encompassed all major aspects of retail strategy, such as technology and applications, marketing, digital retailing, merchandising operations and supply chain.
The exhibition floor at the Javits Convention Center was packed to the rafters with around 600 exhibitor and more than 30,000 attendees. The show also featured a host of panels and presentations, along with industry leaders, vendors, and suppliers.
One theme was certain: In 2015, consumer expectations are going to continue to rise. Retailers need to look for ways to connect with the increasingly demanding consumer so that they become fans of the brand, instead of simply customers.
Here are the top six takeaways for the c-stores industry:
Look Outside the Industry for Ideas
For ideas and inspiration on how to forge more worthwhile connections with customers, look at some of the innovators in various non-retailer categories. Consider the sports industry. C-stores looking for ways to turn average consumers into hard-core fans of a brand should review how professional sports associations and franchises deploy solutions (i.e., beaconing, data analytics mobile merchandising, etc.) in their stadiums and arenas. For example, Paraag Marathe, the president of the San Francisco 49ers, was on hand to discuss their new mobile app allowing fans to personalize their visit to Levi’s Stadium.
The C-Store Space is Ripe for Innovation
Since the average c-store transaction is both simple and anonymous, complex issues addressed during the show like onmichannel, showrooming, privacy and security seemingly have little resononance with the c-store world, in reality, that isn’t the case at all.
“The c-store format is actually a fantastic environment for early adoption of mobile in-store marketing because the context of the customer’s visit is very easy to understand, and the retailers, as well as their grocery, CPG and fuel suppliers etc., have the ability to see an immediate fulfillment of the marketing effort,” said Jason Gross, vice president of strategy and marketing, for Verifone. The company was demo’ing their VeriFone Digital Network, VNET In Store solution.
“When we look at retail innovation, it’s clear that one of the most effective ways to drive engagement is by tying the adoption of the technology into the consumer’s routine—everyday activities, such as with Uber and transportation,” added Wells Burke, also from Verifone.
What could be more routine than filling up with gas and buying coffee?
Hiring Veterans Makes Good Business Sense
One of the biggest issues in retail, as the c-store space knows very well, is the high turnover rates. The big question is, where do you find motivated, qualified people? One answer lies in the fact that each year over 200,000 people leave the active military service, the vast majority of them seeking employment of some form. We spoke with one of the presenters, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Gilman of the United States Marine Corps, regarding this issue.
Lieutenant Colonel Gilman, currently serving as director, national organizations and interagency collaboration, Chairman’s Office of Reintegration in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience of retail professionals that it isn’t easy for veterans to articulate their own individual attributes in interviews, because during their service they aren’t trained to think in a self-promotional way.
In other words, they have the skills to succeed as an associate in retail, but they are likely to be challenged as to how to articulate how those skills may be of value to the organization. Those c-store companies willing to spend minimal resources towards demystifying the industry to the potential veteran hiree will see a significant payoff in the form of a hard-working leader who knows how to problem-solve.
Technology is for Everyone
Most of the NRF Show panels and discussions were centered around highlighting enterprise-level solutions for enterprise-level problems, which makes sense, considering the exhibitor list is filled with the big vendors like Microsoft, Oracle, Samsung, Toshiba and the like.
However, after spending some time visiting the smaller booths around the exhibit floor’s periphery, one gets somewhat of a different perspective. We saw multitudes of mid-to-smaller tier vendors who are eager to work with independent stores and smaller chains.
“The commoditization of many technologies brings the costs down,” said Austin Gunter, senior marketing manager at Vend, a Silicon Valley-based tech start-up in the POS space. “Smaller retailers now have the ability to use technology to compete with the bigger players.”
The “Mobile Customer” is Your Managers and Associates
In addition to consumer-facing mobile applications like store finders, loyalty and coupons, quite a few back-office functions can be optimized with mobile devices. C-stores need to think of their employees as mobile users and provide them with the devices and apps that help them increase productivity and revenue. This was one of the major points made during the panel “Real-time, Intuitive and Engaging Mobile Experiences.”
Basically, a good mobile app that lets a manager work on things like inventory, training, promotions and marketing without being tied to a terminal in a back-office or at the POS, enables them to spend more time on the floor, which leads to more revenue. One key caveat: make sure you have the network infrastructure in place to support a mobile initiative, if you are dealing with multiple store locations.
“Anyone can give their store managers some iPads and call it a ‘mobile initiative,” said Ron Hassanwalia, chief operating officer of SOTI, a company that helps businesses enable, optimize and secure their mobile workforces. “C-stores need to leverage remote management in the right way in order to drive the consumerization of IT to bring your stores up to date and get the managers out from behind the cash register.”
U.S. Economics: What Consumers Want
At a panel discussion looking at the overall economic environment for retail, Ellen Zentner, an executive director of Morgan Stanley and the senior economist for the U.S., spoke of a recent report issued by Morgan Stanley titled “U.S. Economics: What Consumers Want,” mentioning a consumer sector “in transition.”
The report cited evidence that signs of stronger wage and salary growth, bolstered by lower energy prices will drive increased spending among lower and middle-income Americans. Good news for c-stores where sales growth tends to rely heavily relies on these segments and their spending habits.
Dave Hochman, a frequent contributor to Convenience Store Decisions, is the founder of DJH Marketing Communications, Inc., a PR, Content & Social Media agency serving technology innovators in the beverage, C-Store and specialty foods industries. Contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter @davehochman.