Live from New York, it’s the NRF Big Show: Gen. Powell on building trust, companies creating communities and employees solving problems using data and a little more than just pixie dust

General Colin Powell kicked off the NRF Big Show Conference this morning. He is a wonderful speaker.. witty, casual, a master storyteller. He told stories from his first job in retail, of his journey up through the ranks of the military, of his time as US Secretary of State and experience on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He spoke of mentors and coaches who influenced him. We are not the product of one hero, or victim of one failure, he explained. You are a product of all the people who have passed through your life, and every experience that has passed through your life.

Powell talked about his retirement and an initial emptiness that ensued. He talked about politics and the world economy. Yes, people are troubled by the country today, he said somberly, but we are still resilient. He shared stories from the Oval Office. Of how one President empowered his people by trusting them, giving them range, and relying on them to come to him when they needed help. It may seem simple, it may seem rudimentary, it may seem obvious, Powell elaborated, but when you meet and approach someone.. anyone.. regardless of rank, status, position in society.. with curiosity, respect, compassion, then you are taking a small step towards establishing trust. It may be as simple as a genuine “good morning, how are you today” to the minimum wage earning valet staff parking the cars, and really caring. When people trust you, they will follow you.

Finally, he talked about the future: kids. We can in fact all make a difference in people’s lives, he explained, we can in fact influence the future to be the place we dream it can be, and it starts with kids. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, he noted, on this special day of remembrance, and that’s where it starts. Start with your own kids, kids in the community, schools and kids growing up around you perhaps needing a gentle nod in the right direction. He concluded that with an attitude of optimism and willingness to tackle difficult problems, you can create multipliers of success. Start with one small thing you can control, if only a shift in attitude.

It was a great keynote and we would have loved to hear more stories, but another packed agenda followed.

My colleagues and I went to see our very own Chris Dieringer, Technology Director for Microsoft Retail Stores on a panel with Nick Stowe CEO of Nixon Watches and Jonathan Luster, VP of Market and Concept Development for Lowe’s, hosted by James Farnell, International President of RDI. These gentlemen took us on a Virtual Store Tour of some retailers in Manhattan that are coming up with new ways to solve business challenges using technology. In addition, some of these retailers are pursuing really creative ways to engage with customers in an increasingly digital, mobile and connected world.

Chris talked about the importance of community, of giving back, of some of the work Microsoft does to improve and enhance the lives of others. He talked about the importance of a physical store presence when much of sales are going to online and how you justify that. It’s not just about driving immediate sales, he explained, it’s about creating fans. (If you’re in New York this week be sure to swing by our new Microsoft flagship store). Jonathan (Lowe’s) talked about introducing what we all know as a huge Lowe’s store footprint to a much smaller two story space in Manhattan. How about looking at a slick touch screen and browsing hundreds of life size fridges? That’s one way. How about stations where you can pot your own plants without lugging bags of soil and a trowel home? It’s not about demographics, as much as giving customers what they want, said Jonathan. Lowe’s has clearly thought hard about what people in a big city want and need and that was fascinating.

David Roth, CEO of The Store, did some trend forecasting in a session on Global Shopper Behavior: Key Trends. One piece of advice he shared with the audience was that if you can help consumers manage the following three areas of their lives, including budget, health and time, there’s opportunity, and they will listen to you. If only we could all improve our budget, health and find more time! On his website he shares stories from retailers who have tackled changing consumer preferences in an increasingly connected web of channels.

In one of the last sessions of the day, to a packed room, our Director of Analytic Solutions at Microsoft, Shish Shridhar, was along with Su Doyle, RFID Applications Director with Checkpoint Systems, sharing stories around Tastes, Trends, Touch Points – Understanding Shoppers Through Machine Learning. Shish can not only tell you in an instant what food item grocery stores sell out of in advance of a hurricane, but also the exact flavor of that food item, and he can show you the data model, the advanced analytics and machine learning behind it. Most retailers have a wealth of data at their fingertips. Transactional data, historical data, external – “big data” – such as weather and perhaps demographics or competitive pricing data. There’s data you can and cannot control, but by using intelligent data modeling you can shift from descriptive and diagnostic analytics (hindsight view) to predictive and prescriptive analytics models (insight and foresight). This is when data can really start to answer tough questions and solve big problems for people and organizations. Read more about data and solutions for retailers in Retail Insights: Harnessing the Power of Data.

We return to the Microsoft booth for customer meetings. My colleague Sanjay Soni from our Cortana Analytics Suite team has a crowd gathered for a Power BI demo. On the screen we see beautiful dashboards, colorful visualizations, charts and graphs, even real time tweets. He walks through some scenarios starting with context, challenges and solution. A camera sensor by the screen takes a picture of some brave volunteers and then tags everyone with presumed gender and age. The crowd laughs as they check the data being displayed on the screen before the computer gives a personalized product recommendation for the individuals. Sanjay now takes on the role of a sales associate, invites one of the audience members to be the customer, then extends the experience into Microsoft Dynamics POS and not only closes the sale but provides an excellent customer experience! The crowd claps and you would think Sanjay has some pixie dust in his pocket, but there is no pixie dust needed here. Our Power BI and other analytics tools and solutions are live and available and being used by our customers, today!

It’s been another big day at the NRF Big Show. Temperatures have dropped to high twenties. We bundle up and head out into the cutting wind chill and bustling city. Tomorrow we will be back for another day with our fellow show sponsors and exhibitors, connecting with customers and partners. The NRF Big Show offers a cornucopia of ideas, solutions, creativity and inspiration and we hope you will come visit us at the Microsoft Booth, #2803, and learn more: