Editor's note: The following is a guest post from Christopher Walton, an independent consultant and former vice president of Target Store of the Future.
Retailers are creatures of habit. It is partly why our industry is in its current apocalyptic state. One victim of this habituation is the trade show circuit. CES, NRF's Big Show and ShopTalk are all around the corner. For many, this circuit means an exhausting few months of travel, going through the motions and, if not careful, a significant amount of activity with little true accomplishment.
But it does not have to be this way — trade shows can be great! Specifically, NRF's Big Show is where the best and the brightest of the industry gather. It's a space where we learn from each other, make new connections and open our horizons to the untapped potential of the industry reformation (not apocalypse) we are about to undergo.
Kick the trade show circuit's ass with a plan full of vigor in the spring, and come fall you will be making hay. Do the opposite — lollygag through the shows or treat them as New York or Las Vegas boondoggles with free drinks and exercise ball swag — and chances are both you and your company will pay the price in the months ahead.
A smartly planned trade show can be the difference between retail transformation and the opposite.
So, in advance of next week, here are some expert tips to help you make the most of your NRF Big Show 2018 experience:
Know your flywheel (aka your business)
Here is Amazon's Flywheel:
Here is the flywheel that I espouse to combat Amazon's:
This question may seem simplistic, but every individual planning to attend a trade show — whether a retailer, a CPG, a solutions provider, or even a member of the press — should how his or her company makes money.
It can be the difference between accidentally spending 30 minutes with Larry from "whatevertech" or smartly faking a trip to the restroom like a veteran to get away from him.
Stay in your lane
Noted futurist Jim Carroll believes that companies should always focus on three things: Improving the business (i.e. incremental margin growth), growing the business (i.e. incremental revenue growth) and transforming the business (i.e. developing new businesses models and economics). Carroll thinks that companies should allocate a portion of their resources to each of these efforts. How much they allocate should depend upon the underlying strength of their individual flywheels discussed above.
The same goes for trade shows. Are you there to look at the most far out technologies or are you there to figure out the mundane? Are you there to learn how to invest millions in VR technology or are you there to save half of a percent on mobile transaction fees? Both are important. Both could be valuable to your company, but only one is likely important for your job, so stay in your lane.
You don't want to be the guy from procurement who can't stop talking at dinner about the 3D hologram concierge that said "hello" in a sultry voice.
Don't over schedule, especially with people you already know
It's easy to get over scheduled at a trade show. You have colleagues you haven't seen in awhile, there are vendors that want to show you the size of their booths, there's a lineup of cool speakers — and you also have the corporate AMEX for entertainment at night, so HOLLLLAAAA!
But don't. Don't fall into the over scheduling trap. And don't ever say, "HOLLLAAAA," out loud, even to yourself.
It is hard not to fall into the trap though, so I try to keep two simple rules: Don't schedule more than 50% of your time in advance and don't schedule meetings with people you could easily call up on the phone or meet any other time of the year.
Trade shows should not be about reinforcing what we already know. They should be about learning and deciding where we want to go next.
Keep a high level tactical plan
Omnichannel retailing is my business. It is what I write about weekly on my blog. It is what I concentrate on 100% as an entrepreneur. I believe there is a better way to do retail out there and my goal is to build a new omnichannel retail concept that works on the flywheel outlined above and that runs on business metrics different than anything we have ever seen before.
So my plan when I attend NRF next week is to focus, at a high level, on the technologies that are most pertinent to my plans. My goal is to form partnerships with technology companies at the show that can either help me either create new physical social and commercial experiences or improve the fundamental working capital and operating metrics of physical retail.
Laying my cards on the table, these are the technologies that will garner the lion's share of my attention:
- Data capture and processing
- Machine learning
- Cloud commerce
- Location tracking
- Social media content management
- Scan-and-go mobile applications
- In-store pickup and returns processing
- Labor force management
- Augmented reality
Meetings I set up before the show will be focused around these topics, as will any other time I use to roam the trade show floor.
Stay away from shiny pennies
Some of you are probably thinking, "He left off voice? Where is voice? And, where is virtual reality? Did he forget them?"
I did not. I intentionally left them off my list. They are important, but for where I want to go and for where legacy bricks-and-mortar needs to go, they can wait.
Voice and VR are years away from transforming in-store brick-and-mortar retail at scale. They may hasten the migration of sales from bricks to clicks, but I do not see either of them changing the way people shop within physical stores over the next three to five years. They are shiny pennies on the ground, desperately begging for us to pick them up.
The litmus test? Porn. Until VR hits porn mainstream, I could not care less about it for retail. I would rather have a nerd three-way with the sexy likes of cloud commerce, data capture and location tracking. Those alone should be enough to steam up anyone's Internet of Things.
Keep an open mind
Even though I loathe all the press hubbub about voice and VR right now, I could be missing something.
It is important to watch out for biases and to look for interesting applications, in the right measure of your time, of things you maybe do not love, but that others really do.
So stop by the VR and voice demos, just don't waste all your time going gaga over them right now.
Keep some flex time
Leave some time in your day completely unscheduled and walk the floor, or glide in and out of presentations at your fancy. No one knows you or what will catch your interests better than you.
Our minds need time to wander, to explore, to see what is out there and to be inspired by our own curiosity. That goes for both in and out of the show too.
My favorite moment of NRF 2017 was when I left some time open in my schedule for my friends and I to explore Bed Bath and Beyond's newest store concept in Brooklyn. I had no idea I would end up out there on my trip, but I did, and it forever changed how I think about the retail landscape. So much so, that the trip inspired No. 5 of my 10 surprising retail predictions for 2018.
Serendipity matters. It is how we make our own luck.
Get in some arguments
No one has all the answers to everything in retail right now. Some think the sky is falling, others think retail is as healthy as ever, and still others take more of a middle ground approach (hence my use of the word "reformation" in the preamble).
We will not get anywhere together unless we use trade shows as a place to debate and to put our knowledge insecurities on display in front of others to see. I wish the shows themselves would take more of this approach, as well. I wish they would create a debate style presentation of topics, but they don't. Instead we get panels upon panels of various titles and companies that all say the same thing and don't deepen our understanding at all. Everything just stays surface level.
It is up to us then, to create the arguments — to find the gray in what we really know and what we just think we know.
Strike up some new conversations at Starbucks
The best place to strike up a spirited conversation is at Starbucks. The Starbucks at the Javits Center is off the chain. It is crazy busy. There is no better place to meet new people and to start a lively debate (you will wait a long time).
So, while you are waiting for your extra hot grande non-fat latte, turn to the person next to you and say, "Hey, how do you think in-store point-of-sale will evolve over the next few years? Will everything move to the cloud?"
One of two things will happen. The person will either leave his or her coffee behind and run away screaming in terror, or the person will know a good bit about what you asked him or her.
It's like dating. In the former situation, you are no worse off than you were before the conversation. In the latter situation, you may have just formed a life-long relationship that could serve you well for years.
Take the risk, at Starbucks, at the parties in the Gansevoort Hotel and even on the NRF Twitter feed, to strike up conversations and even start some arguments with absolute strangers.
But be careful, it is New York.
Don't fly into or out of LaGuardia
It isn't worth it. The place is caught in an architectural time warp. Its bathrooms are built to handle the capacity of the Hickory, IN high school basketball team, and most of the time I half expect Leonardo DiCaprio in a bad pilot uniform from the 1970s, to come running around the corner as he tries to flee from the FBI for forging checks.
Friends don't let friends drive drunk, and retail colleagues sure as hell shouldn't let each other fly in and out of LaGuardia.
On to the Big Show!