Reinventing retail in a VUCA world

February 8, 2023 | By Justina Eitzinger

Global retail industry leaders and tech innovators came together at the annual National Retail Federation 2023 Retail’s Big Show. Conversations ranged from rethinking consumer and associate experience to collaboratively future-proofing retail, how sustainability, diversity, inclusivity and wellbeing are all becoming business imperatives…Here’s our exclusive report.

If revenge networking or smart shopping is a thing, then the 113th National Retail Federation (NRF): Retail’s Big Show 2023 at Javits Centre in Manhattan, New York, showcased just that! The snowstorm that hit New York only two weeks prior to the event, a looming recession and the rise in Covid numbers – nothing stopped the global retail fraternity and ecosystem to gather for a super showcase, shopping intent and discussions on technologies, trends and best practices driving the retail world forward.

Quite like seeing your friends after a long period of hiatus, retailers and solution providers turned up with shopping budgets, high energies, curiosity, great ideas and notable experiences gathered over the past three years that were albeit challenging but also offered untapped opportunities to pivot and evolve.

“This past year was a historically challenging time. We did see some relief from the pandemic, but we also saw extreme challenges with global supply chain that collided with surging demands, a shift in sectors from goods to services, high inflation levels that we haven’t seen in decades and the start of a war. But we should really be proud of retailers all around the world who rose to meet those challenges head on. We did what we do best; first, we served customers, we got them what they wanted and what they needed, amidst macroeconomic challenges. Second, we innovated. We moved fast to meet the customer’s changing needs,” said John Furner, President and CEO, Walmart, US in his opening remarks.

Along with the leading tech players such as Google Cloud, Microsoft, Zebra, Wipro, Salesforce, several startups and lesser-known brands were at the show to exhibit and demo their solutions built to simplify work for people in retail while making the processes more agile and efficient.  At the same time making the experience and buying lifecycle for the consumer both seamless and delightful.

Watch our exclusive video clip from NRF here.

Agility and disruption helped retailers sail through the past two years…and the investment in technology must go on

From some of our conversations with retailers from the Middle East at NRF, it’s clear that technologies highest in demand include artificial intelligence (AI) and other analytics tools, real-time inventory management, smart devices at stores and warehouses, loyalty and even online negotiation plug-ins (human needs meet AI)!

“We come to NRF to hunt for new technologies. A few years ago, we started the journey with our mobile shopping and self-checkout options. This year we came to see new trends, and what kind of new innovations we can bring to Saudi as to enhance customer experience and engagement,” said Mohammed Belkhayatte, CIO, BinDawood Holding.

“There are two objectives of coming to NRF, one is to get connected to the latest happenings in the industry as demonstrated in the booths and exhibits at the show. Second is to connect with people to better understand challenges across different regions. And of course, it is a very great place for people to share ideas, thoughts and connect with old friends,” added Piyush Chauhan, CIO of KSA’s Panda Retail Company.

We also met with and got to hear from the American handbag retailer Vera Bradley about their success story with The Modern Store by Zebra, which resulted in an elevated customer experience, engaged associates and optimised inventory.

If happy employees guarantee happy customers, Zebra’s Modern Store solution seems to have played a key role for Vera Bradley and Lowe, a home improvement brand from the US. Both retailers spoke of how seamlessly the solution helped optimise workforce management with employees having a say on their schedules, fair workload, ideal scheduling, integrating task management to increase task execution with real-time alerts, decrease the need for overtime and advanced communication and collaborative working by answering customers faster without leaving their side with the connected devices from across departments.

Another cool solution displayed by Zebra at NRF was its Fetch autonomous mobile robots (AMR) built to enable automation in manufacturing and warehousing operations. One of Fetch’s recent major milestones is how it improved Waytek’s throughput by 25%. The US-based family-owned distributor of electrical components Waytek replaced its conveyor system with Fetch AMRs that fulfilled more orders, reclaimed 13% of its distribution centre space for product storage, extended the life of their facility by five years and freed up their workers from certain manual tasks.

Wipro’s Retail Innovation showcase was also interesting highlighting solutions that integrate the physical and virtual worlds to create seamless experiences enabling retailers to grow their business while building strong customer relationships through four solutions. These include ‘Endless Aisle’ allowing shoppers to view a brand’s full inventory in all locations to make informed decisions. ‘iShelf Insights’ that maximises productivity and sales through virtual planograms. ‘Unified Customer Intelligence’ that assimilates siloed data to create a cohesive picture identifying target audience and their needs. While ‘Smart Track’ allows companies to have a comprehensive view of supply chain to maintain product safety and quality.

The other technology that piqued our interest was Nibble, whom we met in the Innovation Lab.  Nibble is an online AI negotiation technology that retailers can plug in to their digital assets for consumers to make an offer on the product page for instant results, higher conversions, gratified customers – an absolute win-win. The data also helps with analytics for pricing and loyalty. Whilst Nibble is technically a seed stage funded startup, it has 200+ customers already and a handful from the Middle East including a car tyre retailer from the UAE. Nibble has a fair business model, offering retailers to implement for free and pay 2% on success of converted sales.

Retailers keen to bring consumers back to the stores

Given that retailers make more per capita spend per in person customer than online shoppers, a constant upgradation of products and technology at physical stores is paramount.

Three critical aspects will drive physical retailing:

  • Store Productivity
  • Frictionless Checkout
  • Inventory Management

Qualcomm, Zebra Technologies, Google Cloud, Microsoft, Nvidia and several other technologies showcased their new innovations to make physical retailing and e-commerce more efficient in a world where channels are blurring.

“We are all trying to figure out the future, but there are indications of where the future is moving, and I think it really boils down to really knowing who you are, what your brand is about, your ethos, your manifesto, and then really studying your consumer, not only their wants and their needs but ultimately the world they are living in, around them, cultural trends and the various different ways that you could sort of filter, ultimately everything that you want to learn about your consumer through what I call your retail experience. Knowing your consumer, delivering exceptional product and creating the experiences that drive that community affinity.  Today more than ever, consumers are voting their dollars with brands that matter,” said Richard Dickson, President and COO, Mattel.

The big question: Did all find what they were after at NRF? 

Shabu Abdul Majeed, Director Retail Operations and Mohamed Aneesh, CIO at Lulu Group International said their expectations were a “little higher”, but their overall experience was “good”.

Overall, they found multiple options and a range of investments for the same, which was helpful.

Over to the US consumer

As per NRF and the Census Bureau, consumers in the US spent on essentials as forecasted. However, the furniture and home furnishings, electronics and appliances and department stores saw a decline in spending.

The affluent consumers in the US are being watchful about their spends. In research done by the Research The Affluent, with a sample size of 2,000 affluent consumers in the US, it became apparent that there is caution in their consumption appetite for non-essential shopping with the anticipation of a recession in about six months’ time.

But grim is not the sentiment at NRF for the resilient and strong industry that retail is, given the announcement of the NRF APAC edition that will commence in Singapore from June of 2024.

“This has been 5 years in the making.  It is a dream that has been happening over time, we are finally going to realize that dream in June of 2024 in Singapore, so we are thrilled. I don’t think I need to tell you, why we went to Singapore, because it is so obvious, it is an incredible market and the amount of retail and how retail is so incredibly important to that market is why we believe it is the absolute right place to be,” said Martine Rearden, Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice president of Content and Retail Strategy at National Retail Federation.

The final word: Reinvention will keep retail interesting, innovative, irresistible

Clearly, retail is constantly reinventing. We at Images RetailME have four events in the region through 2023 for you to engage with the retail ecosystem, learn from your peers and share your knowledge and experiences, and of course network.

We have the Internet Commerce Summit on March 16-17 March; RetailME ICONS in June, the Middle East Retail Forum in October; and the Riyadh RetailWeek in December. We hope to see you there!



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