A good many stories have been written with insights and takeaways from the National Retail Federation's Big Show this week in New York. Perhaps the best, however, came directly from the retail leaders themselves. Whether on a panel, the main stage or told directly to Retail Dive, here are what a dozen top executives are focused on in 2018.
Jennifer Hyman, CEO and co-founder of Rent the Runway
"The movement that online businesses like Rent the Runway or Warby Parker or Bonobos have taken to offline stores has been I think conflated to mean that it's a huge strategy for us, whereas the majority of our sales — over 90% of our sales — are happening on mobile, online and will continue to happen on mobile and online and we continue to see retail stores as being supplemental to the customer experience."
Rent the Runway, an e-commerce darling that now has just five stores in major urban centers, doesn't have big plans for more stores this year. Stores, which aren't measured by sales per square foot, are seen as an extension of customer service and the company plans to build out a physical presence (whether that means more stores or not) that is experiential yet as efficient as a Starbucks, Hyman told Retail Dive.
James "JC" Curleigh, president of global brands at Levi's
"Delivering the expected has never been more important that it is today. At the same time, understanding how to bring the unexpected, something the fan didn't expect but when they experience through Levi's, they remember it, they tell the story again, again and again."
For Levi's, 2018 is a year defined by getting the fundamentals right, while also delivering an unexpectedly positive experience that touches customers on a cultural level. While not part of a strategic business plan, Curleigh detailed how the brand last year launched a powerful impromptu ad with a simple message about bringing the world together through music — and of course denim.
Scott Emmons, head of the innovation lab at Neiman Marcus
"Overall in the first five years of the innovation lab, [the challenge has] been to translate the digital capabilities into experiences in the store that solve real problems for our customers."
Several years ago, one of the biggest issues was that Neiman Marcus online and in-store was only connected by a name, and silos across the business kept departments like IT from working together on the ideation process, Emmons told attendees of a panel on digital transformation. The next phase is to push the envelope on tech-driven ideas that reduce friction in the in-store experience.
Marc Brown, senior vice president of store operations at The Home Depot
"There's a period of time where the business part doesn't matter because you've got to get things back to normal for that community, and that includes your associates. [I]t's the only way to do business if you're going to be in it for the long haul."
As retailers become more focused on social responsibility and eco-friendly practices, along the lines of Patagonia’s donations to environmentalist causes, more businesses are rethinking their business practices. According to The Home Depot’s Marc Brown, that conversation should extend to store associates, who retailers have a responsibility to take care of. During a panel at NRF, Brown emphasized that, especially when natural disasters strike, retailers should make their employees’ wellbeing a priority — and think about the business later.
Molly Mecham, senior digital product manager of e-commerce at Finish Line
"When we were looking at flagships, we looked at what else is out there — not just in apparel, but in beauty and other areas, and how we could bring that to Finish Line."
With a renewed focus on making the in-store experience more engaging and fun, Finish Line installed three augmented reality smart mirrors in stores, which allow users to snap a photo in different backgrounds and share it on social media or with their friends. Some of that inspiration came from beauty retailers, Mecham told Retail Dive, which are way ahead of other sectors when it comes to AR. The athletics retailer plans to continue working with in-store tech going forward, including RFID-enabled displays and anything else that could ramp up the in-store experience.
Tyler Haney, CEO and founder of Outdoor Voices
"I think that's super powerful when thinking about Nike, Under Armour and Lulu where product development, for example, is reserved for 15 guys in lab coats and it's only brought to you once it's fully baked. At OV, where we've found a lot of traction and people really want to get involved in the conversation is around product development."
The outdoors e-commerce retailer is laser-focused on treating customers "like a best friend," and Haney said during a panel that the brand takes recommendations about product details from their customers and even looks to them for inspiration. The secret to Haney's social media success also lies in the details, though — the brand makes an effort to respond promptly to customers on social media and also pays close attention to who and what they follow, making sure they stay true to the brand's core values.
Jim McIngvale, owner of Gallery Furniture
"We can always make the money back but you can't save peoples' lives but once."
In a world where social responsibility is becoming more important to consumers, Jim McIngvale believes retailers shouldn't think twice about helping out the community. He used his own stores to shelter hundreds during Hurricane Harvey and had over 6,000 people attend a Thanksgiving dinner hosted in a Gallery Furniture parking lot — and he didn't think twice about the cost to the business. Whether or not the move made him lose money in the short term, McIngvale said customers have flocked to his business ever since, and most say it was because of his actions.
Ed Macri, chief product and marketing officer at Wayfair
"Nothing's off the table."
When thinking about brick-and-mortar stores, Macri told Retail Dive anything was possible. The online furniture retailer saw a massive sales boost over Black Friday and has been incredibly competitive in the home category. And despite Amazon's bold entrance into the space, Macri isn't concerned: He said that while the home furniture sector is growing at 15% online, Wayfair itself is growing 40%, which means "they prefer us to our competitors."
Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart
"The purpose is the purpose, the values are the values. Everything else is open to debate and may change."
Walmart is focused on a few fronts, but as much as the industry is in flux, and disruption is the order of the day, McMillon's "job No.1" is to keep the culture going and remind people of Walmart's core values. He may be the last CEO of Walmart to have worked and personally known founder Sam Walton, pointed out NRF CEO Matt Shay. Walton passed away in 1992, but "he's still kind of present," said McMillon. "He gave us a very clear purpose."
Lori Flees, senior vice president and principal of Store No.8
"It's the job of the senior leadership team to figure out where we need to go and the new places need to be to disrupt ourselves and our business. To [recognize] how to lean into those earlier, rather than later."
Store No.8 is Walmart's technology incubator, a place for the company to experiment and focus on more future-forward initiatives. The goal is to operate separately from the bigger entity which has to be more focused on the here and now — to be small and nimble, to move quickly and to ensure projects get funded. Store No.8, said Flees during a main stage appearance, pairs the leverage of Walmart with the simplicity of a startup.
Tina Sharkey, co-founder and CEO of Brandless
"We wanted to build it 100% ourselves, we wanted to own our data from day one. Data science is a critical part of our DNA."
At just six months in, Retail Dive's Disruptor of the Year came to NRF's Big Show looking for solutions to support its strong early growth. Early challenges are of the kind most companies are happy to have: finding the right talent to scale the business to keep up. "We can't do it fast enough," Sharkey told Retail Dive in an interview.
Hubert Joly, chairman and CEO of Best Buy
"We are dealing with tough, complex issues with decades if not centuries of biases. It's an exciting journey, but it's a human journey. So, by definition, it's messy. I know that on our journey we are going to stumble and make mistakes. It's so important from a human and societal standpoint, and we have no choice but to stick with this journey."
Gender equality is in the spotlight, nationally, and Best Buy has been working to increase diversity throughout the ranks. Today, roughly half of Joly's direct reports and 40% of the company's board are women. But there's still more work to be done, he noted from the show's main stage on Tuesday. "The fact that we have good gender diversity at the top cannot hide the fact we have a lot of progress to make throughout the company from a gender standpoint and with people of color," he said. "As CEOs, we have an imperative to act on this. This issue is in our hands."