Failure, fun and a fire drill: Insights from NRF Nexus strategists

Kate Ancketill, Pascal Finette and Jason ‘Retailgeek’ Goldberg on retail trends and best practices
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor

Discussion of generative AI was ubiquitous at NRF Nexus 2023 — so much so that one presenter deemed it “the trend that shall not be mentioned.” But between the present realities and future focus of that particular technology, a series of strategists delivered their thoughts on other trends and leading practices.

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Pascal Finette, co-founder of be radical and recognized tech innovation expert and futurist, spoke on the importance of rapid prototyping in times of uncertainty, resulting in doing “10 times in a tenth of the time and resources.” Kate Ancketill, CEO and founder of GDR Creative Intelligence, talked about global disruptors such as COVID-19, conflict in Europe and climate change, and how to mitigate their impact on business. And Jason “Retailgeek” Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer of Publicis Groupe, delivered key trends and future predictions.

A few highlights:

“Nobody ever succeeded by failing.”

Finette took aim at the oft-quoted mantra of “fail fast, fail often and fail forward.” He called instead for a reframing of “FAIL” as “First Attempt in Learning.” Recent research, he said, has shown that failure is predictive of future success — based on willingness to iterate and how quickly it can be done.

He spoke of a rapid prototyping methodology; the focus starts with figuring out the hardest thing to prove to be true that a project hinges on, and prototyping that first. Too often, he said, projects begin with prototypes of the already-familiar aspects, leaving the more complex challenges until later.

Pascal Finette speaking at NRF Nexus 2023.
Pascal Finette speaking at NRF Nexus 2023.

Why not start with the most challenging, and figure out the fastest and easiest way to test it out? That might involve, for example, making crude but functional prototypes with cardboard, index cards or paper; gathering customer feedback; and continuing to make tweaks. Rolling the dice faster and more often will eventually bring the desired results.

Finette told of his time overseeing innovation at Mozilla, and stepping across the street to ask customers in line at a coffee shop for their thoughts on prototypes. If they didn’t understand a component right away, he said, it was back to the drawing board for the next iteration. Rather than taking three days to do a single prototype by writing code, he got 30 prototypes in one day, multiplying his learning by going “lower fidelity.”

COVID was “a fire drill for the permacrisis we’re in.”

In this age that’s “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” Ancketill said, there are three ways of building resilience. First, leveraging power shifts, including the exploration of decentralization-enabling technologies and empowering consumers and suppliers; second, moving to inclusive regeneration, recognizing societal leadership as a business function; and third, embracing human-centric generative AI.

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Gen AI, she said, can be used to “drastically improve efficiencies with human enhancement as the core purpose.”

Ancketill noted that the world is realizing how to deal with finite resources as businesspeople and citizens, with the U.S. still lagging in some areas. There’s a need, for example, to accept that products designed for single use will no longer be acceptable. In addition, she spoke of energy-saving measures in Europe, such as lights being turned off earlier on monuments, public streets and store windows, and only cold water available in municipal buildings in winter.

In the meantime, inflation is taking over as a “main worry,” with food inflation, rising shrink, retail vacancies and the fight against obsolescence as key markers. There’s a growing recognition that products should have a longer and more circular life.

As for the idea of decentralization, she said, “resilience is easier to achieve when it’s spread across a wider base.”

The last few years have been the “greatest years in the history of retail” — which is still surprising because they weren’t that fun or that easy.

When talking about recent growth, Goldberg said, it’s simply not possible to use the tools that were used in the past. Comparable store sales, for example, are not helpful.

Goldberg used U.S. Department of Commerce data to help bring clarity and perspective to “the most complicated climate ever.” Last year closed with $7.1 trillion in U.S. retail sales, up 8.2% from the year before, and 31% from 2019, prior to the pandemic.

The key to remember is that it’s averaged growth. There were clear winners and losers, and “digital disruption hasn’t come for all of us at the same time.” Those doing the best at present are the ones selling “needs” rather than “wants.” In addition, it’s important to remember that a significant portion of recent growth is inflation.

Jason “Retailgeek” Goldberg speaking at NRF Nexus 2023.
Jason “Retailgeek” Goldberg speaking at NRF Nexus 2023.

Goldberg has been particularly interested in the grocery industry, 14% of all retail sales. It’s the second-largest category behind automotive; it’s also one of the most impacted by inflation. Before the pandemic, he said, groceries and restaurants were on relatively even ground in competing for “share of stomach” budget. Post-pandemic, restaurants dipped and groceries rose. Now, however, restaurants have pulled ahead — though consumers are still eating there less than before COVID, thanks to this “new thing” of off-premise food consumption.

He also addressed the impact of the last few years on ecommerce, which he believes is often misunderstood. There were $1 trillion in online sales last year for the first time, he said, and it was “amazing.” Overall, ecommerce is up more than 80% from before the pandemic. But it’s still growing at a slower rate overall than it grew before COVID.

Before the pandemic, 15% of all sales were online, and another 36% were digitally influenced, adding up to 51%. The pandemic moved the total from 51% to 61%, and Forrester predicts by 2025, it will be 70%. Digital, he said, is the new front door to purchasing decisions.

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