Live from NRF: Microsoft Ballmer’s Crystal Ball

New York—The Monday morning keynote session by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer here at the National Retail Federation “Big Show” was surprisingly light on jargon and tech specifics. And until the end, it was also surprisingly light on plugs for Microsoft.

During the session, entitled “Retail Innovation Outlook,” Ballmer shared with the standing-room-only crowd his big-picture view of “where technology is going and how it will help retail overall.” The starting point, he said, is “with the consumer,” especially as consumers’ need and desire for control continues to grow.

The consumer “expects more in terms of tailorization and customization than ever before,” Ballmer said. “They expect to be at the center of everything that the businesses that serve them do.

That customer desire for personalization is one of what Ballmer viewed as the four core tenets of the state of retail today. Another is that “competition is very much more global and very much more focused on giving customers what they want as a means of differentiating themselves,” he said.

To be able to better focus on customers is arming front-line employees with much of the customer and operational information that had long been reserved for the executive suite. “Today I see a real focus on empowering employees and making information available to them…for real-time decision-making across the employee base.”

The fourth tenet of retail today is what makes this more thorough distribution of information possible: integration across all aspects of the business.
Ballmer emphasized, however, that retailers’ focus on technology needs to go beyond how it can help in the functioning of their processes and operations. “Really understanding that technology is going to change how you work but also how the consumer wants to work with you” will become ever-more critical, he said.

For instance, customers expect to be able to easily access retailers’ information online. But while they may for the moment be satisfied with search engines as a means of finding data, “search is a very indirect way” to gather information, Ballmer said, and consumers are likely to grow frustrated with its limitations before long. Likewise, “consumers will expect payment [options] to change,” with the addition of options such as more efficient payment-by-phone capabilities.

In terms of how technology will enhance retailing in the years to come, Ballmer pointed to enhanced real-time business decision-making, in which systems will pull together internal data, data from vendors and other partners, and outside data such as weather trends and forecasts and then make the actionable information gleaned from these data accessible “to mere mortals”—the store managers and perhaps even the associates on the floor—rather than just to a select few.

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