The Best Presentation I Saw at NRF Had Me Cheering By Myself in a Room Full of Strangers

February 5, 2024

I’m going to be honest: I headed into this presentation at NRF as a skeptic. I have a chip on my shoulder. Working twenty-plus years in retail stores, watching the fun, creativity, and resources drain out year after year was, well, a total bummer. 

I love retail, so to watch it suffocate was depressing.

Every year I worked retail, the tasks increased while the payroll was slowly taken away. Excellent customer service became a challenge as we were saddled with processing ship-from-store, buy-online-pickup-in-store, and processing online returns. 

At the end of my retail leadership career in 2022, working in a retail store felt a lot like working in a warehouse that was open to customers. Occasionally, we’d get to make a customer’s day great or make a meaningful connection, but, by and large, we were taskers. We were racing against the clock with a skeleton crew of employees, apologizing daily for whatever we did not have in stock. 

As I headed into a presentation entitled: Everything in retail has changed – have stores kept up? I thought, “Here we go, blaming store employees again for not working hard enough. Stores suck and it’s our fault.”

But I was dead wrong. Delightfully, enthusiastically, dead wrong. 

When I’m inspired, I take furious notes. Here I was, standing at the back of a packed conference room, taking notes as fast as my thumbs could type on my phone. Spelling errors abound; I had no time to correct them, nor did it matter. I will sort those notes later as I write. 

The host of this jump-up-and-down speech was Lee Peterson, Executive Vice President, Thought Leadership and Marketing at WD Partners. Peterson’s bio is impressive. He’s worked with companies including CVS, New Balance, Luxottica, and Target. 

That’s just a start. There’s more. Many more. However, this line from his bio was my favorite. 

Lee believes that stores have a crucial role in the new dawn of retail.

Indeed they do, Lee. Indeed, they do. 

Let’s get into it. 

Peterson quoted survey data throughout his presentation to drive home his points. It was helpful and impactful; I knew it was correct. I’ve lived and breathed customer service for twenty-four years, so data points like these are already wired into my DNA.

The best example of why retail stores currently suck is this – customers have gotten used to shopping online. They like the convenience, speed, and endless aisles. Stores, to their detriment, have tried to mimic the online experience. 

The merchandising is boring, sales associates have become taskers, and the inspiration has been drained right out. 

All true. 

Stores now look like online shopping. How depressing. 

Stores are currently all functional and have no vibe. 

No wonder people are uninspired to shop these days. Tremendous opportunities are missed when stores are designed to get customers in and out quickly. 

What happened to dwell time? What happened to surprise and delight? 

Online stifled all that. Merchandiser positions were cut from companies to save money (I witnessed it). Companies stripped design down to white walls and tables. Shopping in stores has become a bore. 

Customers no longer have to go to a store, so companies must make them want to go.

“People aren’t getting off the couch because fantastic stores don’t exist,” Peterson said. 

But there is hope.

One company, in particular, has got it really right. 

They’re not only rethinking; they’re reinventing what retail stores are. They’re using the community as a baseline for inspiration and building imaginative spaces. 

The company is Yeti in Austin, Texas.

The Yeti store in Austin is a flagship store for the company, but it is so much more than that. It’s a bar, a concert space, a customization counter, and a retail store. It’s an experience. It gets people off their couches and brings them together. 

A reminder that Yeti sells coolers. That’s it. This is a store for coolers. 

The Yeti retail store has one small wall dedicated to selling coolers. The rest of the store is an outdoorsy person’s dream. The store is wide open and airy. There’s a truck parked in the store, wooden crates showcase Yeti water bottles, and a lifesize bear stands near the customization counter. 

“Every store should be treated like a flagship store,” Peterson said. 

He’s right. Why not? Why do brands exist if not to inspire their customers?

The next time I’m in Austin, I’m going to the Yeti store, and I’m not even that outdoorsy. The last time I used a cooler was because my refrigerator died.

Store design isn’t the only aspect of how the retail store has a crucial role in the new dawn of retail. There’s more.

Peterson advised that stores need to be creative and innovative. Visual merchandising must be on point, and the music must be just right. He also advocated for paying frontline retail teams well. 

“Woo!” I yelled from the back of the very full, spilling-out-the-door conference room. 

The lady next to me gave me a side-eye. No one else in the room was phased. Did they hear him? He said, “Pay your retail associates really well!”

Oh. Reality check.

Maybe no one else in the room had ever run a brick-and-mortar building. Maybe they’d never haggled over half a percent more of a raise for their manager, who was their right hand – for the person who showed up every day without fail and picked them up on the days when operations became a slog. 

I guess I was the only one in the room with that life experience. 

Hearing any executive in a suit at a retail conference advocate for paying sales associates more money is extremely rare. This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone do it. So, I stand by that “Woo!” and I’d do it again. 

Thank you, Lee. 

The presentation that led me in as a skeptic had me walking out cheering. 

I hope the rest of the attendees were as inspired as I was. The future of retail stores depends on it. If stores remain the mirror image of online shopping they currently do, the industry is in trouble. 

However, we’ll be in excellent shape if companies bring back visual merchandisers, store designers, and visionaries. 

If companies continue to reimagine what retail stores can be, like Yeti, we’ll all be texting our friends, getting off the couch, and going shopping. 

That’s where I want to be. 

Let’s go shopping. 

Based in Southern California, Kit Campoy is a former retail leader turned freelance writer. She covers Retail, Leadership, and Business. Get her latest book, The Retail Leader’s Field Guide, today.  

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