NRF 2020: Key Takeaways

It was a vintage year at #NRF this time round, despite the floor perhaps being a little lighter than some previously, the array of delights on offer was as impressive as ever.

It feels like something of a shock that it’s all over, but having had a week to digest the highlights over some much heated conversations back at TruHQ, we think we’ve just about got our heads around the key emerging themes and talking points from the floor.

As always, it’s going to be interesting to see how these play out across the rest of the year, but for those looking to place a bet, we reckon the below will give you a good starting point. 

Brick and Mortar is ‘BACK’ (once again!) 

A safe call for key takeaway from NRF 2020 would be that the experts are now once again firmly backing brick and mortar as the key to retail’s ongoing and future success.  A widely shared piece by Retail Dive’s Daphne Howland, caught the mood, highlighting the increasingly visible presence of cutting edge concept stores from the likes of Showfields, Area15, Enjoy and Neighborhood Goods. Big names such as Nordstrom have also showed their willingness to embrace the ‘push things forward’ mantra, with the launch of their ‘product free’ Local stores (covered previously on this blog).

With some of the major eComm players of the last few years starting to show signs of a slow down (Howland noted to Caspar Sleep’s $90 million in losses as one clear example) the resurgence of an appreciation for physical retail that has been growing behind the scenes for some time, came into full bloom at this year’s show.  Where pure-play online disruptors were once seen as an existential threat to a struggling retail industry, the role of the store is now being re-evaluated and pushed into a new role at the start of the fledgling decade.

Rediscovering Retail’s Human Side 

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, who led the proceedings on Day 2, delivered a passionate call to arms for providing retail experiences that truly embrace what it means to aim high, inspiring many with his call for retail outlets to reconnect with their role as a place where humans can gather interact with one another, as well as just buy things.  Across the speakers at NRF 2020, there was a real sense that retail was reconnecting with its human side, with increasingly loud calls for authenticity and connection resounded across each of the main stages.

With keynotes from the likes of Patagonia’s Head of Corporate Development Phil Graves emphasising the ethical responsibility that retailers need to focus in an increasingly fragile world, perhaps another quote from Johnson can be taken as synecdochical for wider attitudes on display across the rest of the show,

“The pursuit of profit is not in conflict with the pursuit of doing good” 

Kevin Johnson, Starbucks, CEO

The Female Quotient 

Now in its second year at NRF, despite feeling like a much longer established part of the proceedings, the Female Quotient Stage, set up by Shelley Zallis, offered a world class line up highlighting the variety and impact of female talent operating across the board in retail.  Honesty and self-determination were the name of the day, with many a speaker calling on founders to acknowledge the difficulty of the challenges they face, by understanding personal strengths and weaknesses.

There was a dogged persistency to much of the advice given to those keen to listen – perhaps best captured by Poshmark co-founder Tracy Sun’s advice that while there’s theoretically never a good time to start a business – your best bet is to just get on with it and do it!

A huge array of brands and speakers were represented across the three days –  from Untuckit’s Chief Digital Officer Lockie Andrews to TechStyle’s President of Global Fashion Brands Laura Joukovski – representing a bright and exciting future for the future of female talent in the retail industry.

The AI Invasion

From the fringes of imagination to front and centre of the world’s largest retail show, everywhere you looked it was hard to miss some sort of mention of AI as a talking point.  If it wasn’t for the wide-spread pontificating about the importance of the human touch in retail, a casual observer might have thought that all stores will be run entirely by robots in the next few years…

As it stands, many of the uses for AI are to fuel distinctly ‘human’ needs, with artificial intelligence continuing to drive an ever increasing sophistication when it comes to personalisation (or hyper-personalisation as it’s now referred to) along with the resurgence of the Loyalty Program as two major AI-driven talking points to look out for in the new year.

Blurred Lines – one channel to rule them all?

While at one point the word ‘omnichannel’ was the buzzword par choice for the movers and shakers in retail, the advice coming from the world’s largest retailers is that we need to now focus on how to treat all channels as one.  ‘Unified Commerce’ is a term that is increasingly replacing the ‘omni-focus’ of the near past, and in a world where as much as half of store sales now involve an online journey, treating the two channels as separate entities already feels distinctly outdated.

Erik Nordstrom’s keynote laid out the bare facts about the way people are shopping today, and his talk highlighted that consumers are thoroughly in control when it comes to driving the way that today’s retail journeys are evolving.  The brands who sit up listen, and most importantly are able to react to these shifting expectations, are the ones who will lead the way in 2020 and beyond.


So that’s it for another year!  We’d love to hear your take on what you felt were the most important emerging themes at #NRF2020 – let us know in the comments or on Twitter at any time.

If you’re still feeling the pangs of withdrawal from the Big Event, why not check out our full post on the best of Day 1 to keep you going. 




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