Branding. Mass customisation. Customer service. Connectivity. Wireless commerce. These were just some of the themes of this year's National Retail Federation (NRF) annual convention, all of which were underscored by the idea that the time has come for retailers and their partners to truly embrace the technology that they have been implementing over the past few years. Some of the more insightful thoughts and ideas are presented here.

Exhibitors and speakers at NRF 2001, the 90th annual convention and expo - which drew more than 15,000 attendees and about 350 exhibitors in New York, NY - agreed that retailers will need to leverage new technology across their business platforms to be able to succeed in the 21st century.

Following is a sampling of some of the more insightful thoughts and ideas culled from convention seminars and interviews.

On branding…

  • "Brands are ideas that people live by. They're ideas that help people live a better life." The value of a brand can be rational or emotional, but either way, it is value that extends beyond the basic function of the product or service. The concept of retail whole branding involves a 360-degree look at every aspect of a company from top to bottom, including its merchandise, its website, the layout and décor of the store, its billing statement, customer service and so forth. Branding builds relationships and customers for life. You can take brand equity to the bank. Finally, "If you're not a brand you're a commodity. If you're a commodity you're interchangeable. If you're interchangeable, you're doomed."
    - John Torella, senior partner, J.C. Williams Group

  • The brand has the opportunity to become a conduit, to strengthen all the opportunities that exist between the customer and the retailer.
    - Katherine Lemon, Ph.D., Harvard Business School, Harvard University

On the web…

  • There is a strong need for apparel manufacturers to have a rich, high-end brand website even if it never conducts a single transaction - it is becoming increasingly a cost of doing business. Customers will expect it. As a manufacturer, you can best serve your retail partners by making a visit to your website mimic a commerce experience as much as possible, capturing the customer's interest in a particular item and then linking him or her to one of your retailers that actually sells it. Aside from boosting sales of your product, this has a key benefit to the manufacturer in the form of providing a wealth of data that can be analysed and researched to learn more about your customer.
    - Catherine Harding, director, retail solutions, Blue Martini

On change…

  • If you don't take risks, your company will not survive in the future. Employing the philosophy of "this is the way we've always done it" will be your downfall.
    - Barry Lipert, partner, Arthur Andersen Worldwide and co-author of Cracking the Value Code: How Successful Businesses are Creating Wealth in the New Economy

  • In the future, an item will be purchased several times, but will move physically only once.
    - Debby Bosselman, director of e-commerce strategic alliances, PFSweb

  • Succeeding into the future will require an understanding of how your customers are changing and how their expectations are changing. It's an understanding that the retailer has lost control and that the customer is transforming his or her own shopping experience whether we like it or not. And finally, it's an understanding that the notion of who sells and who buys is being turned on its head. With the e-mail and wireless technologies available to consumers today, they are essentially able to tell us that they are open for business.
    - Katherine Lemon, Ph.D., Harvard Business School, Harvard University

  • It is possible to track on the Internet what SKU a customer looked at and chose not to purchase. That' s never been considered before in brick-and-mortar stores. If you leave a Target store with an item in your basket, then you have walked by 79,000 items and elected not to buy them. Now we are beginning to challenge ourselves to figure out what the reasons are that people don't buy certain items and how we may be able to change that.
    - Kathy David, general manager, store brand sites, Target.direct

On dynamic imaging…

  • "E-business today requires an imaging solution spanning the supply chain that is infinitely scalable and flexible as well as ultimately reliable. Companies on the web today are looking to deliver the same image across the supply chain, from manufacturer to distributor and retailer and finally to the consumer to control brand identity, streamline image distribution and reduce the cost and complexity of rendering an image multiple times for multiple applications."
    - Sasa Radulovic, president & CEO, TrueSpectra

On mass customisation…

  • It is important to change the way you think about the most precious commodity in your store - your consumers - and to envision how you're going to become all things to all people all the time.
    - Bruce Westbrook, consumer business strategy and supply chain leader, Deloitte & Touche

  • "I think the concept of marketing to the individual as a segment of one is certainly very intellectually attractive and potentially very exciting, but we've all lived through the B2C Internet craze, and we have to remember that attractive intellectual construct does not in and of itself constitute a viable or profitable business proposition… I think it's far more likely that for a long time to come, the most thoughtful approach will go part way down the spectrum from mass marketing to individual marketing and to a more advanced form of segmentation marketing that we see today." Total personalisation is difficult for many reasons. It will be some time before we have a complete view of each guest. Privacy concerns are an important issue: many guests want to be anonymous and shop with cash. Finally, shopping is just one part of the picture of what people do, and it doesn't tell us everything we need to know about them. Furthermore, the cost of customising content, while feasible on the Internet, is going to be prohibitively high in some channels, and a lot of people are not going to use the Internet as their primary shopping vehicle.
    - Kathy David, general manager, store brand sites, Target.direct

On serving the customer…

  • "Most retailers don't need new people coming to their stores. They're already there. What's happening is they're walking out of the stores. The reason they're walking out of the stores is they don't have the right product, at the right time in the right size."
    - Mike Hand, corporate vice president, marketing, QRS Corp

  • The single-most challenging issue confronting retailers involves engaging the customer and getting him or her interested.
    - Katherine Lemon, Ph.D., Harvard Business School, Harvard University

  • "The information that allows me to make a decision that's going to change actions, that's going to drive value, that's all that matters. To be able to identify what that is, that's the trick. Is it personalization? Is it quicker delivery? What drives value - that's what we need to know."
    - Kathy David, general manager, store brand sites, Target.direct

On technology…

  • The dynamics of markets are changing and there is more variability and volatility than ever before. Retailers need the right tools to respond to these changes, and technology will play a significant role. In the 90s, companies implemented a lot of systems to improve internal operations. In the future, companies will invest in systems to improve their external operations so as to be better players in the supply chain.
    - Terry Turner, senior vice president, consumer goods and retail, i2 Technologies

  • "Over the last ten years, the apparel industry has grown an average of 3 [per cent] to 3.5 per cent a year. In the lean years two per cent, and in the good years 4.5 per cent. I don't know any retailer or vendor who plans on [only] a two to four per cent increase. Everybody says, 'I'm going to grow, whether it's high single or double digits.' So the reality is that they've got to do something different. And they either have to take it out of the back end [and] save costs so they can get their margin, or they've got to do something about the front end."
    - Mike Hand, corporate vice president, marketing, QRS Corp

  • Technology customers today are utilising and demanding solutions across the board, particularly in the following areas: collaboration with trading partners and connectivity into the factory; the ability to analyse the impact of production delays; visibility into orders, from the time they're put into the system until the product arrives at the distribution centre or other final destination; real-time knowledge on the status of orders, shipments and inventory, down to the SKU level, with automatic notification of problems; and finally, demand planning and forecasting capabilities.
    - Evan Schumacher, CEO, Celarix Corp

  • After spending millions of dollars fixing their systems to make them Y2K ready, retail information technology (IT) departments are finally tackling the next major hurdle - successfully implementing a multi-channel infrastructure (bricks, catalogues and the web). This effort will be focused on competing in the future, unlike Y2K, which was focused on correcting mistakes of the past. To be successful, retailers will have to completely rethink who their customer is, and how they will attract and retain that customer. In other words, unlike Y2K, the multi-channel initiative will be driven by the business, not IT. Nonetheless, IT will have a significant role, bringing a "reality check" to businesses by evaluating the scope of available technologies. Furthermore, while the mid-90s blank-sheet approach to redesigning business was interesting, implementing big expensive custom builds usually failed, and retailers have learned that the better path is selecting software vendors whose functionality and vision most closely match their own. Moreover, they have learned the importance of retaining an integration partner familiar with their industry and its challenges, and armed with the knowledge and experience to implement leading-edge multi-channel software.
    - Josh Chanin, director, CFT Retail Solutions

On labour…

  • One of the key challenges facing retailers is the need to attract and retain higher quality employees. To attract truly qualified people who can provide genuine customer service, retail organisations must realise that they are going to have to start compensating people better and offering them a piece of the pie. The era of waiting in long lines, not being able to find a place to park and not being able to find a knowledgeable or even helpful salesperson is gone. Customers will no longer tolerate that.
    - Christine Corelli, futurist and author of Wake Up and Smell the Competition

  • Given the tight labour force anticipated in the next five to 10 years, finding qualified employees is going to be difficult. New information technology solutions that enable customers to do things for themselves may eliminate part of that problem in a way that is efficient for both the customer and the
    retailer.
    - Katherine Lemon, Ph.D., Harvard Business School, Harvard University

  • One the best things that Target has done in its stores is implement scanners that people use themselves to find out the price of an item. Every store has requested more scanners because the customers love to use them. That technology has helped in that it first answers the guests' questions. It also frees up the employee base to do other things. Because our customers haven't yet found out that they like to stock the shelves, we still have to do that.
    - Kathy David, general manager, store brand sites, Target.direct

By Jordan K. Speer, senior associate editor of Bobbin.

For more information about next year's convention, which will be held 13-16 January, 2002 in New York, NY, contact the NRF at Tel: 202-783-7971; Fax: 202-737-2849; online: www.nrf.com.