Actionable Insights and Takeaways for Retailers from NRF 2021

NRF Chapter One is over, and as always it’s given the retail industry a lot to think about at the start of the new year.  With its enforced switch to a virtual format, the event itself provided a microcosm for the challenges retailers are facing in 2021, as they grapple with the rapid shift towards online and all the knock on effects that brings with it.

With the recent announcement that NRF Chapter Two in summer will also be digital now, it’s clear that 2021 is likely to contain as many surprises and disruptions as last year.  Retailers will need to continue to adapt to rapidly changing customer needs, evolving safety measures and manage ongoing uncertainty, as major shifts occur at breakneck speed.

But one thing 2020 proved is how resourceful and creative retailers can be.  As NRF Board Chairman Mike George reflected in his keynote, “All of you displayed remarkable agility and remarkable resiliency through this crisis.  Many of you stayed open, serving as economic first responders, while others pivoted to serve customers in new ways.”

Key themes from NRF

Although the digital format is easier on the feet, navigating the deluge of content from this multi-week event is a mammoth task.  So here we’ve picked out some interesting themes and actionable insights relating to NRF’s Forwards Together theme from the various keynotes and sessions – including from Scandit CTO and co-founder Christian Floerkemeier’s Big Ideas Session.

1. Forward-looking growth: Change with customer’s new habits and take the sting out of scaling

man shopping online using tablet
While we can expect ebbs and flows based on the various external factors, one common view throughout NRF was that the acceleration of consumers’ shift to buying online is set to continue moving forwards.

Lockdowns and safety restrictions on physical retail all contributed to the already growing online channel share across the whole retail landscape, with up to 40% net increase in intent to spend online reported (source: McKinsey & Company, COVID-19 Consumer Pulse Survey).

Even for grocers and essential goods retailers unaffected by store closures saw online spending on groceries increase by 78% in 2020 (Economist Intelligence Unit report). Fulfilling these orders put operations under severe pressure.

New shopping behaviours are here to stay

People’s new online shopping habits will continue even when restrictions ease.  A new survey of 4000 global consumers found that 60% of respondents will retain some of their new online shopping habits, including 55% of baby boomers (those born between 1946-64), an older demographic who might have been skeptics before but have been converted by the ease of shopping online.

When dealing with a shift of this magnitude in a relatively short space of time and with unplanned and unforeseen peaks, it’s no wonder dealing with surging digital channels is still top priority for retailers.

More sustainable and affordable solutions for scaling up order fulfilment capacity and streamlining processes are required.

Technology must scale with demand

This was one of the topics explored in Scandit’s ‘Retail Responses to COVID with Lasting Impact’ session (check it out here), highlighting real examples of how some of our retail customers successfully adapted by leveraging scanning-enabled smartphones in their fulfilment operations.

The successful responses included:

  • US same-day delivery company Shipt readily reacted to a demand spike by expanding order picking and delivery operations quickly and cost efficiently with a BYOD scanning-enabled mobile app.  This meant they were able to get 40,000 new and temporary contractors onboarded in no time.
  • A large US supermarket chain who were able to scale and streamline curbside pickup operations by deploying over 5500+ additional iOS smart devices to employees during March/April (a 44% increase in devices) with a workflow optimized, scanning-enabled mobile app that helped them to handle double the volume of orders.

2. Forward-looking operations: A flexible infrastructure and accurate inventory data underpins your ability to adapt

Retail Hardware Store XCover Pro

Continuing on the theme of enabling retail operations, some of the biggest success stories from last year were those retailers who had invested in an infrastructure which enabled them to implement, speed up or bring forward retail digital transformation initiatives.

Examples range from investing in new services and omnichannel technology solutions, such as curbside pickup, or bringing forward the launch of already planned projects like launching mobile self-scanning or a ship-from-store service – it’s clear that a flexible IT infrastructure underpinning operations is key to adapting at speed.

A great example of this was shared US home improvement giant Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison speaking at NRF. He discussed how the company’s digital transformation journey over the past two years was all about staying focused on the fundamentals and targeting investment towards upgrading their eCommerce platform.

Due to this they launched curbside pickup a year earlier than intended. This meant they were able to capitalize on the demand for home improvements when millions were stuck at home, despite store closures, and saw a 30% boost in third-quarter sales compared to 2019.

Do you know what is where in your inventory?

This year’s NRF sessions featured a focus on technologies and areas that might not normally grab attention, such as AI and supply chain, after the challenges of the pandemic exposed weaknesses and inefficiencies.

And one factor separating the success stories from the strugglers was inventory data. Knowing what is in stock and where became a crucial differentiator in the ability to meet the demand, especially as supply chains were affected worldwide by the crisis and images of shelves picked clean were circulating.

One example of this, shared during Scandit’s session, was of a large US fashion retailer who already used smart devices for multiple functions within their retail operations.  They reacted to store closures by accelerating the launch of their ship-from-store service.

By utilizing the smartphones loaded with six or more mobile apps for various retail tasks, they could enable their employees to switch between in store or back of house tasks seamlessly.  With a scanning-enabled smartphone in every employees’ hand, inventory accuracy and visibility improved with every scan, enabling them to implement the ship-from-store in as little as six weeks.  And the flexibility to shift inventory from stores to eCommerce and in both directions helped get stock to where they needed it.

Turning stores into mini-fulfilment centres is one way many retailers are adapting to the online shift (check out our blog on dark stores to learn more).

Whether it’s buy online pickup in store (BOPIS) or reserve online pickup in store (ROPIS), enabling returns to store, or buy in-store ship to door – giving customers more choice is key to retaining their business.

3. Forward-looking experiences: Footfall will return but expectations have changed


It’s not all about digital though. Physical retail is still important and a major overhead for retailers that need to deliver value. During a session at NRF, Travis Boyce, head of global retail operations at Allbirds firmly stated, “We are committed to the bricks-and-mortar channel for the long haul.”

Despite some pent up demand, it’s unlikely footfall will simply return to pre-COVID levels instantly. Brick-and-mortar stores are becoming an extension of eCommerce, rather than the other way around, but crucially they aren’t going anywhere.

And when stores do reopen, the consumers coming through the doors will be used to the simplicity, convenience and personalization of shopping online – and likely still wary of safety restrictions. Bringing the value of online experience into physical stores will be essential to capture their business and loyalty – and mobile technology is one way to effectively blend the physical and digital.

Miya Knights, Retail Technology magazine publisher, touched upon this topic during a discussion at NRF.  She advised retailers to take advantage of the contextual functionality of mobile technology in stores to provide more intuitive, content and feature rich customer experiences.  For example, scanning a product barcode to access information on your smartphone in store, whether reviews, availability or recommendations, helps bring the familiar information-rich experience offline. And using augmented reality in customer apps can further bring this to life, as you can see in the video below:

Bringing digital shopping experiences in store will not only improve customer engagement, but also bring an extra layer of confidence for consumers to go back to brick-and-mortar stores, as they can minimize interactions and still get what they want.  For example, self-scanning on their personal device using mobile shopping apps is a convenient, contactless and safe way to get in handout of the shop.

4. Forward-looking talent: The evolving role of employees in the age of contactless and digital

Clienteling Augmented Product Information
And finally, we move from one expensive and invaluable retail asset to another: your employees.

In addition to bringing more of the online feel into stores, as the pandemic fades and footfall returns, retailers need to make the human touch a differentiating factor to drive consumers into stores.

Customer service will be under even more scrutiny and the role of store staff will need to evolve. Handily for retail workers, deploying mobile technology in stores can help empower employees when clienteling, enhance their service delivery and support multiple tasks in one light-weight and user-friendly device.

Putting a smart device in their hands can help associates to surprise and delight customers with more personalized service and recommendations based on purchase history when scanning a loyalty card, answer questions on stock availability on the spot or even order the right size to be shipped to the customers home if you don’t have it on site – seamlessly and without leaving the customer’s side.

This level of service can make physical stores a destination that shoppers will want to return too – and the technology is already available without major disruption or investment.

Single device strategies are expected to become the norm in retail operations

You might have noticed a common thread throughout this blog – the role of the smart device replacing hardware scanners as the device of choice for retail operations . Watch this video to see just a few of the advantages of smartphones for retail staff:

Smartphones with advanced data capture and barcode scanning capabilities in the hands of employees and consumers to help retailers scale with demand, transform operations, plus empower and engage people – whether they are shopping in the store or working there.

Employees can seamlessly switch from order picking in store, to inventory management in the back room on one lightweight device they’ll be happy to carry with them all day. And with Scandit, you can also ensure high performance scanning even on personal devices in a BYOD model – ideal for scaling up temporary workers or contractors in peak season.

In our presentation, we finished on the note that equipping every employee with a smartphone scanner helps deliver lean, efficiency and agile retail operations that help you adapt to whatever challenges are thrown at you.

Because if 2020 and NRF taught us anything, it’s that consumer behaviour and market conditions aren’t predictable.

Find out more

Check out how you can Add Simplicity & Speed to Retail Store Operations with Smartphone Scanning. Scandit’s optimizing retail operations guide walks you through the best practice on how to successfully deploy smartphone scanning for retail logistics.