Megan Johnson is an Executive Vice President in Edelman’s Corporate Reputation division. With a background in brand marketing and communications, she is keenly focused on reputation management for a wide variety of clients across the retail sector.

With the dawn of a new year comes the annual kick-off of some of the world’s largest convenings, ranging from CES and the World Economic Forum to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) “Big Show” in New York City - and they call it “Retail’s Big Show” for a reason! It really is the Super Bowl of retail, drawing nearly 40,000 attendees and 6,200 brands from over 100 countries. This multi-day event is where industry leaders gather to explore technology and trends, develop new ideas, and learn from each other.

Retail is a global business that pervades every aspect of our lives – from buying necessities like toothpaste and deodorant to purchasing a new winter coat that will last for years, to splurging on special gifts for loved ones. What was loud and clear at this year’s event is that the retail industry is far from static. Brands must constantly evolve through innovation to keep up with the ever-changing wants and needs of consumers. Fortunately, they’re in a good position to do so; the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer underscores this evolution as it highlights the fact that business is the most trusted institution to introduce, implement, and integrate innovations into society.

At this year’s “Big Show,” the NRF Innovation Lab was nothing short of impressive, showcasing the latest applications in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, machine learning, facial recognition, and robotics. Will there be a world where Virtual-Try-On technology through AR dominates the shopping experience? Can drones deliver food as hot as it was when it came out of the oven right to your doorstep? And, how amazing is it that VR technology is being deployed to support workforce development by giving employees immersive simulations of real-world store scenarios.

RetailTech was certainly a prevalent theme throughout the “Big Show.” Using technology to create an environment where brick-and-mortar and e-Commerce stores can unify and co-exist was a notable area of focus.

Another common thread running through the shows’ hundreds of panels and discussions was the fact that having an omnichannel strategy is no longer a nice to have, but a necessity. Brands that got their start in wholesale are now investing in direct-to-consumer channels, while digitally native brands are now exploring brick-and-mortar avenues. Bottom line: The modern-day consumer is interacting with brands through multiple channels and locations, expecting a seamless experience regardless of the platform they’re engaging on. Consistency and customization are paramount, allowing consumers to forge a stronger personal connection with the brand at every touchpoint.

From a financial outlook, retail economists are remaining guardedly optimistic for continued economic strength in 2024. The resilience of consumer spending in 2023, coupled with a robust labor market, has set a positive tone. Retail spending over the course of this past holiday season in 2023 rose just over 3% year-over-year, marking a return to pre-pandemic consumer spending trends. As CNBC’s Senior Economy Reporter, Steve Liesman, reassuringly put it during his keynote, “It’s going to be OK.”

As a client counselor who has worked with retail brands of all shapes and sizes, I am continually energized by the speed of change in the industry and what that means for building smart communications strategies for the enterprise, its brands, and leadership. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • Proactive storytelling to control your brand’s narrative is key and should be rooted in data, insights, and action – and most importantly, be real! Today’s consumer is smarter than ever before, they’re doing their homework, they have a nose for authenticity.
  • Consumers want to hear from the CEO – as we’ve seen revealed by the Edelman Trust Barometer – and especially their point of view on social issues. With the right narrative and channels, a tailored executive positioning program is very impactful to many stakeholders to maintain confidence in the business.
  • No company is immune to having to face an issue – whether operational or societal. From a retail perspective, this could include anything from a supply chain problem, product recall, store closures, job losses, cultural issues, and more. Investing in issues preparedness is one of the most important things a company can do to be prepared with stakeholder engagement techniques and issues management frameworks.

Here’s to an exciting and dynamic 2024 in retail, online and in stores.