One of the highlights of this year's National Retail Federation (NRF) show in New York City was the appearance of Sir Richard Branson as keynote presenter. For an industry grappling with an uncertain future, it was a stroke of genius to snag the Mick Jagger of the entrepreneurial world, a man who not only resembles the iconic singer, but whose career and empire marched and grew in lockstep with the revolutionary music and ideas of the early sixties.
Branson’s appearance is doubly significant given this is someone who owns an airline, space launch company, phone network, entertainment empire, and more. When he talks about innovation and entrepreneurship, people just have to listen.
NRF was all about technology and disruption. AI was the dominant term, followed by IoT. Hundreds of innovative technologies were on display, including ours, and the atmosphere was electric – a combination of excitement and fear, not only for the state of fashion retail, but for the world in general.
"Small Restaurant" Personalization
All of this made Sir Branson's words even more sage and prophetic. "Small restaurants, where the owner is present, are better than chains, all businesses must try to mimic," he says, alluding clearly to the hands-on, careful approach that mom-and-pop enterprises like to deliver.
This, of course, does not mean that larger chains are obsolete, but they must never forget the value of close attention to customer needs that the smaller stores deliver. It is the tailored, personal experience that drives a customer back to a small store or a favorite restaurant, not necessarily the price or the selection.
For larger stores, the sales associates become the link to this "smaller" world. They have the power to welcome a customer by name, to embrace them figuratively and maybe even literally. They are the people who can get to know each customer's preferences and deliver a uniquely memorable level of service. They don't have to have an eidetic memory to make this happen. They just need to have technology at their fingertips combined with the permission to use it.
There is a perfect bridge being built between customer and associate, a wireless bridge across which reams of data flow, allowing sales associates to greet customers that they have never met before, with personalized, top quality attention.
The resistance that comes from management is understandable, but it should also be ushered aside. As Branson says, "Entrepreneurs think they must do everything themselves. Don't. Find people smarter than you to help." Well, these people are there already, working on the shop's sales floor. They are smarter by virtue of the data they can access and the relationships they can curate.
Like a Virgin
The most significant part of Branson's presence at NRF can be summed up in one word, which also happens to be his brand: Virgin. He named his company that precisely because he liked to venture into areas of business where he had never been before, to see what would happen. He was willing to try the unknown and had a distinct flair for picking up on trends and techniques that would sell. He was also unafraid of failure, and has stated many times, "It is through failure that you learn."
Our hope is that many of the retailers who attended NRF this year will take a slice of the Branson spirit back home with them. These are uncertain times, but the victory will surely go to those who are unafraid to try new things to pull customers back into the stores and to build long, personal relationships with each of them.
Mr. Branson may be an elder to many in the room, but his words are as timely today as they were when Twiggy first walked down Carnaby Street in London’s west end.
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