At The Future is still (mostly) human, produced by the National Retail Federation, integrated its educational and inspirational programming within the traditional vendor-filled, caffeine-fueled, show floor. Designed to serve a wide-range of retailer needs, this years’ theme was simply, “This is Digital.” And while there was certainly a wide variety of software solutions and new technology aiming to solve for various online business challenges, as well as new tools to engage and solve for various online consumer challenges, there was a subdued tone coming from notable leaders in this space. Many seemed to be coming back down from a “all digital everything” high and instead, settling into the idea that fundamentally, business success comes from human connection, no matter how fancy the facilitation of that relationship might be. This shift speaks to the overall maturity of the landscape, there is now no threat or division between offline and online, there is instead a clarity that all customer touch-points have value and are ripe for refinement.

At a tactical level, companies are redefining the idea and role of “the store,” and removing both internal and external barriers across departments and channels. The result is a more fully integrated model than seen previously. At Disney, this means, in part, live-steaming theme park parades in-store. At DSW, a virtual experience that brings the store into the shopper’s own environment. Even businesses built on digital with a core millenial audience are finding value in getting out from behind the screen. Fabletics increased overall brand performance with retail stores, and Dormify’s whose popup shops with interior designers and NYC showroom have proven a powerful branding and sales strategy.

At times, this in-person element is baked into the business itself, as though Beautycounter’s decision to activate an independent consultant selling model, believing that their mission to both educate women on harmful ingredients, personalize their product recommendations, and build a movement of passionate brand ambassadors would come through one-on-one, in-person interaction. Other times it comes organically from the customer base itself. The Skimm’s Skimbassador program and No Excuses voter registration campaign as well as Peleton’s 45k strong, customer-led Facebook group and charity rides are further examples of how brands can move into advocacy roles, boosting reach, influence and impact when working in concert with brand ambassadors.

This shift speaks to the overall maturity of the landscape, there is now no threat or division between offline and online, there is instead a clarity that all customer touch-points have value and are ripe for refinement.

Many of the conversations explored how companies can stay competitive in a world increasingly dominated by Amazon. For many, hope remains due to what is seen as Amazon’s cold-hearted approach to customer communication, which leaves plenty of opportunity to build loyalty elsewhere. Startups like children’s clothing subscription box company Rockets of Awesome, are coming in with the antithesis of this type of relationship, leading with with brand language that is “care-taking,” and problem-solving, as opposed to simply transactional. For Harper Wilde, regularly working with undergraduate students for insights as well as the confidence to use irreverent humor in a way that instantly puts the brand on its customers side has been key to yielding fast growth for the young company.

For communication professionals on the public relations side (raises hand), it is heartening to have numbers reinforce the value of companies that put relationship-building and mutually-beneficial branded experience at the center of promotional activities. For high-end consignment marketplace Tradesy, CEO Tracy Dinunzio admitted that while she first approached success from a purely single-sale standpoint, believing brand value too difficult to measure, she now looks at LTV, or lifetime customer value, as a much more powerful marker for success.

An outlier presentation in the mindset of all the very cool, but sometimes dizzyingly complex discussions and solutions for attribution models, analytics, machine-learning, cart abandonment and 3-d modeling for customized clothing and drag and drop decorating (so cool!), came from the CEO of Ashley Stewart, whose emotional retelling of his own experience moving from venture capitalist to CEO of the failing company, including giving $10,000 away to a women’s shelter on the say when there was no money left, brought all the metrics down to a reminder that retail companies facilitate meaning among customers. James Rhee certainly had the numbers (Ashley Stewart is tracking toward $200 million in revenue this year), but it was his missive to “go about things in a generous way,” and to redefine for ourselves as business owners and individuals, “what is success, what has value,” that solidified the value of attending as an official correspondent for me.

During a conversation about the rise of the Chief Digital Officer role within organizations, Fred Argir, Chief Digital Officer at Barnes & Noble, Nook, referenced an African concept, paraphrasing “people need people to be people.” After all, what fun is exploring immersive tech-driven experiences and new brand discovery without someone to share it with?

Crosby Noricks

Crosby Noricks

Known as the “fashion publicist’s most powerful accessory,” (San Diego Union-Tribune) and the “West Coast ‘It’ girl of fashion PR,” (YFS Magazine) Crosby Noricks put fashion public relations on the digital map when she launched PR Couture in 2006. She is the author of Ready to Launch: The PR Couture Guide to Breaking into Fashion PR, available on Amazon. A decade later, Crosby is a successful fashion marketing strategist who spends her time championing PR Couture's growth and mentoring fashion publicists through her signature online course PRISM. Learn more about opportunities to work directly with Crosby at her website