NRF's Eric Olson

Eric Olson

There's a lot to take in over four days in New York at NRF's BIG Show. FierceRetail spoke with Eric Olson, VP of Content and Education, to get the scoop on the most buzzworthy content and educational sessions.  

FierceRetail: If you could sum up NRF this year in a single phrase, what would it be?

Eric Olson: There is a really big push for retailers, both large and small, to be as agile and innovative as possible, from the introduction of labs and working with different incubators and startups. So the biggest craze is to think like a startup—it's one of the overriding themes this year. There's been a lot of talk of disruption over the last couple of years, to a point where it's almost become not as disruptive of a word from its overuse. But there is a sense that retailers do see a need to keep innovation at the forefront of what they're doing, and how to best do that.

If you're large like Walmart and Target, you can pretty much put together your own lab that is its own operating unit. Like Westfield, who is speaking on Tuesday. Smaller retailers might not have the resources for that, so they team up with the likes of accelerators like XRC Labs, who put together our Fast Track on Wednesday. They have assembled six different startups that they're working with to bring them up to particular thresholds to be able to be marketable for retailers to utilize.

FierceRetail: That idea of thinking like a startup—in the past, some of the areas that had been a big focus for retailers in terms of disruption have been mobile, omnichannel and experiential retail. Are they still a big focus, and what is today's take on those topics?

Eric Olson: I think what you're looking at more and more now—as the footfall from retail this past year at physical stores went down a bit, but then you saw this great surge in e-commerce spend and mobile spend by consumers—that there's becoming this interdependence between physical and digital retail. It's not just one versus the other. Even pureplays in the past that were really successful realized they wanted to have an experience part where people could touch and feel the product, so the likes of Etsy, Warby Parker have started their own physical stores that have played very well for them. Bonobos, as well. You can just try on clothes, you're not taking anything away with you when you've finished your experience there, but you're able to order and have it shipped directly to your house from the store after you've tried on what you want to buy.

From that perspective, there's a big focus on bringing the digital into the physical space, and being able to mirror the best of both worlds.

We'll have a number of keynotes that kind of weigh into this in different ways. For example, Disney, Nike and Fossil will be on one keynote stage talking about a lot of these key trends and how they're trying to keep their established brands fresh for consumers and keep things exciting, and how the shopping experience has changed. Westfield will be speaking with John Lewis Partnership and Under Armour, all CEOs and chairmen of those respective brands. Kevin Plank (Under Armour CEO) will be there and talking about the need to have both physical and digital experiences to really meet the demands of consumers. Because the consumer at this stage doesn't really differentiate too much between going shopping online or shopping on the phone or shopping on the desktop. It's what is the most convenient for them at the time, or what makes the most sense in terms of what they're buying.

FierceRetail: We talk a lot about new tools that bring the digital into the physical. Will there be new technology, displays and services on the expo floor that would help with that?

Eric Olson: There's a mirroring of what the trends are. Some of the larger sponsors and exhibitors out there—the IBMs and the Intels, Microsofts and SAP—they all have a number of solutions. The iLab is in its second year, and there's some product-oriented innovation but also augmented reality or virtual reality types of headsets. There's a lot of digital capability with respect to how you meet the demands of a consumer that is looking for the best experience in-store that takes away a lot of the friction that happens in-store and creates maybe some sort of bad experience [like] not being able to find product, or having the right size, or not being able to get the product that you want when you leave the store. Merchandise types of location technology is pretty key.

FierceRetail: What do you hope people will be talking about as they leave the show and throughout the year? What are the takeaways?

Eric Olson: I hope that they are excited by advances that have been made within the industry, the industry being on the leading edge of innovation. (There are) things that are newsworthy to consumers. Even just to say, XYZ brand has this new approach to retailing that really enhances what the experience should be, or they've got a new approach to selling—it's not just commerce for commerce's sake, it's actually bringing experience back to retailing.

I'm hoping that people leave the show invigorated by our industry. Because this is really a celebration of the industry, being at the end of the holiday season when retailers are reporting numbers. This is great timing for our event; it's the largest combination of retailers in the world to come [together] and really celebrate what's going on with our industry.