NRF 2015 Musings – Is the show far too out of touch with reality?

by Richa Gupta | 01/14/2015

I am back from spending an interesting couple of days at the NRF Expo in New York City. This annual event is, of course, all about retail. It is all about vendors showcasing technologies and solution capabilities that ease retailers’ everyday operations, helping them get their products to the right customer at the right time and the right price. Omnichannel has been an industry buzzword for several years at this point and one that several vendors showcasing their products at this forum have latched on to. Retailing today has morphed into something that places just as much importance to the distribution center and logistics partner as it does to the retail store. Why, then, were warehouse automation solution providers like Dematic, KNAPP AG, and Swisslog missing from the show floor? Why was Intelligrated the only material handling company with a booth at the show? Is the event doing enough to attract the attention of logistics service providers like FedEx and UPS that are now integral to customers’ shopping experience?

The NRF event is held annually right when statistics from the holiday shopping season start rolling in. While these numbers from a few years ago may have been all about in-store stocking and inventory management, foot traffic at the malls, and consumer spending, the discussion now centers on retailers’ and logistics providers’ ability to fulfill online orders on time. There is also a need to talk more about returns management, especially after the holiday shopping season. As has been widely reported, both FedEx and UPS, along with the retailers they service, faced significant consumer backlash during the 2013 holiday shopping season as order deliveries were marked by considerable delays. Businesses were simply not prepared for the surge of online orders and freight volumes that flooded their ecommerce and delivery networks. VDC considers it imperative for such issues to take center stage at the biggest and most important retail event of all.

All said and done, this show continues to do one thing well. And that is having the critical discussion around retail shopfloor performance optimization – from a technology standpoint, pricing perspective, for planogramming, and generating analytics that help define consumer behavior. I believe there is a need to do more so NRF doesn’t lose its way and get too far out of touch with reality, for which the following are our top recommendations:

  • Do not equate the retail distribution center to the “back office” It is important to not let the show be only about in-store technologies, inventory management, and business intelligence. The way the consumer shopping trends are shaping up, retailers would much rather see how solution providers can now support with their demand fulfillment requirements – both online and offline – while also helping them achieve their strategic goals and objectives for this fast-changing landscape.
  • Make the show attractive for companies like Amazon.com, JD.com, and Alibaba to attendThis is probably my biggest critique of the show. What is this event doing today to attract some of the world’s largest e-commerce retailers? Is a retail-focused show in the US really successful if it cannot attract Amazon.com?
  • Engage material handling solution providers and their logistics customers The show needs to move beyond the “omnichannel” catchphrase to something that’s more all-inclusive because not only is it about where a customer places their order from, but also about how retailers fulfill the same in collaboration with their partners who are now critical to the overall retail ecosystem. Warehouse and logistics automation are themes that are not addressed nearly enough at this show.

While it is not going to be possible to bring about such change in the near term, I hope this is something show organizers give considerable thought to especially as they look to keep it relevant and also attract a broader global audience. I will be posting another blog on some of what I did see and learn about at the show from a data capture market perspective. Stay tuned!

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