The first retail show of the year is off and running. The National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 101st Annual Convention & Expo, known as Retail’s BIG Show, features three days of non-stop learning about “retail’s new rules”—or the ever-present challenge to better integrate multiple shopping channels into a unified, compelling experience for customers.

Once I got past the long lines at registration (given the lack of help for the massive amounts of people looking to register and find where they needed to go, perhaps NRF will look to its member organizations for some better ideas on how to handle logistics), it was time for new rule-gathering. Here are some highlights:

Stores Get Wired
I really enjoyed hearing Bonnie Brooks, CEO of Hudson’s Bay Company (The Bay) talk about how she helped transform one of the oldest department stores in the world into a omnichannel success. “Anytime you’re not innovating, you’re very likely falling behind,” she told a packed crowd during Monday’s Super Session: The Next Evolution: Store 3.0. The morning keynote session included an address from Matthew Shay, President and CEO of NRF.

On top of their 16-million square feet of retail space—selling everything from contemporary fashion to canoes—Canadian-based The Bay has done a great job branding its line of “Stripes” apparel, going as far as getting garments included on the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Bay’s online efforts include a social media initiative called the Insider that brings together a blog, photo galleries, behind-the-scenes videos, editorial, designer interviews, and events into the in-store experience. Brooks also spoke of the convergence of the in-store and online experience, detailing the company’s associate ordering system that gives employees instant access to inventory beyond the store they are in with help from iPads.

Brooks was joined by David Jaffe, CEO of Ascena Retail Group, owners of dressbarn, maurices and Justice. He stressed that by using the right technology, not just the latest, retailers can cost-effectively meet the goals of the customer. “We free up our associates’ time and provide value to our customers, even if they just want to know if something is available online or in another store,” he said.

Do You X Plan?
Later in the morning, I was able to attend the Big Ideas session, “eCommerce Merchandising: The New Paradigm for Multi-Channel Planning.” The featured speaker was Kadima Lonji, Director of Web Technology, Global eCommerce Group at Oakley, who discussed the realities of today’s multichannel merchant.

Formerly at J.Crew, Lonji admitted that most IT staff in his shoes believe they “can build anything” the business determines it needs to respond to market opportunities. But planning remains the critical piece of any project. “If you really attack it at the core, there is no more ‘e’ in ecommerce,” he said.

Lonji went on to talk about “X Planning,” or cross-channel planning, that when done correctly will align management and the multichannel vision, removing the silos of business and ecommerce still found at a lot of retailers.

Turn Change Into Competitive Advantage
Peter Sheahan, founder and CEO of branding consultancy ChangeLabs, delivered a thought-provoking presentation during the luncheon. But what really caught my attention was a few remarks and statistics from MasterCard Advisors’ SVP Andrew Mantis, who introduced Sheahan.

Mantis noted that MasterCard recently reported an 18% increase in online spending in December. The company also anticipates that $8 billion of apparel sales will move from physical stores to online within three years.

“Traditional tools are not enough for today,” Mantis said, stressing the importance that international markets will have on creating new sales channels. “Retailers will need to step back and think about their market in a different way.”

What’s Working Now – and What Will Be in the Near Future
The first of three afternoon “First Look” track sessions featured Sucharita Mulpuru, Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, who’s always sure to offer up boat loads of statistics and forecasts to inform your marketing strategy. Mulpuru provided some results from a U.S. Retail Online Survey conducted earlier in the year that revealed almost one-fourth of consumers still love daily deals, and more than half of consumers surveyed expect free shipping on all orders.

The next First Look session featured usability expert Amy Africa, CEO of Eight by Eight, who crammed more than 20 ideas into a 45-minute presentation. Some key takeaways:

  • When your users come to your website, do they see themselves? Do they see people who look like them?
  • Be visual. Users see pictures, not words.
  • Use patterns. Familiarity is safe.
  • The words you use should be meaningful. In other words, don’t create a story—tell one.
  • Use deadlines to create urgency and cause people to focus.

The final First Look session of the day was a panel discussion on “The Organization of the Future.” It included Bob Myers, CEO of Sheplers, who stood out when he described how the western wear retailer focuses on growing its business around the customer experience and with people who know digital. “Accelerate where your company wants you to accelerate,” he said. “Digital people are data-driven.”

Myers gave the example of how his store managers get credit for driving online sales that take place in their respective ZIP code.

The panel, which also featured Kevin Ertell, CMO of OnlineShoes.com, explored organizational change and how it can surface on its own, emphasizing that retail leaders will benefit from understanding the specialized functions needed in ecommerce to keep pace with customer expectations.