The National Retail Federation (NRF) served up some big speakers at their 2017 Big Show, held recently in New York City. Keynotes included Sir Richard Branson, restaurateur Danny Meyer, and astronaut Captain Scott Kelly, who spent a year living in space—and whose personal narrative made any challenge faced by retailers seem a little more surmountable.

Even so, retailers are faced with many challenges, from rapidly-changing technology to shifts in consumer expectations and purchasing behaviors.

1. The time is now for adopting artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotics
Space-age robotics and AI have arrived and they’re here to stay. Conference attendees even had a chance to meet our future robot friend, Pepper. Retail is one of the industries where AI, machine learning, and robotics have many immediate, practical, and creative applications. It’s also an industry where much of this technology is already in use.

In the UK, for example, IntelligentX uses AI to brew beer. The company takes customer feedback, submitted via a Facebook Messenger bot, and alters their recipes in response—“putting all the customers in the same room as the brewer,” explained co-founder Hew Leith.

Across the pond in California, Zume Pizza is a new-generation pizzeria. “Marta” makes pizzas that are baked in a special delivery truck en route to the delivery location. Or, in Russia, department store Au Pont Rouge has designed a transaction-less exhibition space. A mobile app adds items to a “virtual basket”, fulfilled by a robotics system.

The list goes on (and on). “You must adapt,” warned Kate Ancketill, CEO and Founder of GDR Creative Intelligence. “There is no option. Automation is coming—it’s a question of when, not if.” Jonathan Epstein, CMO of Sentient, went one step further and predicted retailers “that don’t adopt AI in their customer experience systems will be in a bad way within 3-5 years.”

Retailers were encouraged to think of themselves as data companies and to use data to improve the customer experience and to deliver exactly what customers want. “Think about whether any aspect of your customer service can be improved with AI,” advised Ancketill.

2. Investing in people pays off
As technology begins to take over tasks like checking in hotel guests or taking orders at restaurants, it becomes imperative that the human service personnel we employ are exceptional—technically adept, knowledgeable about the product, and highly empathic. So, too, should our CRM tools and processes support empathy, wherever possible.

Yet many retailers are finding it difficult to attract and retain their workforce. Constant churn eats up time and resources and impacts the customer experience. The shift in required skillset also proves daunting. This is why the NRF and large retailers like Walmart and are making significant investments in training programs and professional development. “Great people make great businesses,” said Kip Tindell, Chairman of the NRF.

It follows then that happy employees make for happy customers. It’s people, after all, who are best at building personal, emotional customer relationships. More and more, retailers are finding that their employees, like their consumers, want to align with businesses that stand for something more than profit. Whether you call it “conscious consumerism” or “conscious capitalism”, there is great emphasis on corporate responsibility on a local and global scale. “If every company could adopt a problem or two, every problem in the world could be solved,” said Richard Branson.

An invested, well-trained workforce who feels good about the company they work for is a more loyal workforce. Tindell concluded, “Focusing on people is not only good for employees. It’s not only good for communities. It’s also good for profits.”

3. Create actual customer experiences
We throw around the phrase “the customer experience” in reference to whatever experience the customer has before, during, and after interacting with your brand. More and more, however, customers are expecting brands to create inclusive, sensory experiences. (Think: candlelit, grapefruit-scented rooms at SoulCycle.)

Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, are looking to partner with brands and co-create experiences. In addition to selling great products, brands must attract and bring together communities of like-minded people. In this way, retailers are becoming placemakers—curators of products and people and events, rallied around a set of shared values.

In his keynote, Danny Meyer bid adieu to commoditization of restaurants and stores in favor of creating more personalized, localized, high-quality destinations. The key, he said, is to focus on hospitality, because it’s how you make people feel that they’ll remember most. Indeed, it was revealed that it’s often what happens after an interaction that matters most for customer satisfaction and loyalty. This “leave-behind”, as brand loyalty expert and author Richard Shapiro explained, is often where companies fall short. Anything retailers can do to provide a personal touch, and to measure and respond to customer satisfaction—including “rewiring and reinforcing” a negative interaction and turning it into a positive one—will leave customers wanting to come back.

If we missed you at NRF this year, no need to wait until 2018 to connect. Learn more about Zendesk for Retail and the retailers who trust us.