NRF Highlights: Retailers are Focusing on Employees and Purpose…Are You?

The 2020 NRF: Retail’s Big Show was wall-to-wall technology. From a spill-seeking robot that patrols grocery store aisles to vision-recognition systems for self-checkout, it’s clear artificial intelligence and other technologies are enabling retailers to streamline operations and improve customer experience.


But looking past the headline-grabbing tech, one of the biggest trends during the three-day exposition was a concerted effort by retailers to focus on an asset that’s been around since the ancient Greeks first developed markets to sell their wares: the employee.

While some would say employee value has lessened in the era of e-commerce and call center bots, many speakers at NRF emphasized how retailers that focus on, and invest in, employee engagement and training are poised for success as the new decade dawns.

This year was the first time I’ve seen an NRF panel focused on employee communications and the essential role it plays in the evolving world of retail. I was excited to hear it. As I noted in my pre-NRF blog, retailers who encourage and authorize employees to become brand advocates have the most authentic and human touchpoint for promoting their brands’ values, attributes and products.

Further, as noted in multiple presentations, retailers who empower store associates to be brand advocates will have a leg up in the ongoing quest to attract and retain customers. Plus, a commitment to training and development, competitive benefits, and diversity and inclusion furthers a brand’s ability to draw and retain talent in a full-employment economy.

I also saw a heightened emphasis on what I’ve been calling “purpose with a purpose.” Brands that are deliberate in their community, civic and sustainability actions are going to set themselves apart in this highly-competitive marketplace.  Consumers are expecting—indeed, requiring—brands to do more than sell. They want brands to stand for something, support causes and go beyond writing checks. Consumers will respond positively when sustainability and corporate responsibility are integral to a company’s mission. Especially in local communities, where brick and mortar are prevalent, retailers are abandoning legacy donation areas that don’t have a strong connection to their business, vision or mission, and ensuring their community activity connects to a larger purpose. The companies who eagerly and willingly give back to the people they serve are more likely than ever to find profit and purpose coexisting.

These two trends—a renewed focus on employees and “purpose with a purpose”—are intertwined. Few corporate responsibility programs are successful without the buy-in and involvement of a brand’s workforce. When employees are truly inspired by their employers’ philanthropic and community efforts, they are more likely to stay…and be powerful brand ambassadors.

Clearly, smart communications can bolster the impact—and reputational value—of these initiatives. And Ketchum can help. Please call if you’d like to discuss where your brand is headed in 2020, and how strategic communications can get you there. You can follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn for more.


Ketchum clients have trusted this communications leader for strategic and creative counsel since 2004 when he joined Ketchum. Today, as partner, managing director and portfolio leader, Peters leverages his 27 years of public relations experience in the ever-evolving retail sector by working with client teams to drive feet to store (brick and mortar) and clicks to sites (e-tail). Engagement ranging from product and brand launches, media relations, franchisee & employee engagement, store openings, corporate reputation & crisis management and path-to-purchase messaging.

Peters is a retail expert, having collaborated on projects in grocery, food service and dining, QSR, general merchandise stores, convenience and gas stations, home improvement, health and personal care, electronics and e-commerce.

Peters is a self-acclaimed barbeque connoisseur and chef. He and his wife do their best to raise their teens in Dallas, along with a wily five-year-old Catahoula hound dog.