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NRF 2018: Future technologies impacting retail

There was no escaping the use of visual-based technology at Retail’s Big Show, organised by the NRF, this year. From image recognition for both product searches and inventory scanning to facial recognition for offering more personalised engagements with customers.

Slyce was one of the young innovative companies showcasing its visual search image recognition solution that is being used by many retailers including Home Depot, Macy’s and most recently Tommy Hilfiger in the US and UK.

Using the camera function in the retailers’ apps it is possible for customers to take a photo and have the product surfaced for purchase if it is stocked by the company. Nicole Harris, COO of Slyce, says the machine learning capability of the solution ensures that over time its ability to recognise variable quality user-generated images improves. Retailers typically enjoy 20% increases in average order values and 60% uplifts in conversion rates.

Walmart is being particularly adventurous when it comes to visual technology – using Slyce within jet.com, which the US retail giant acquired to boost its eCommerce capabilities. Lori Flees, SVP of next generation retail at Walmart, says this is all part of its strategy of “augmentation of its technology”.

Among the businesses it is working with are AWM Smartshelf digital shelf-edge labelling that is being used alongside a facial recognition solution using Intel’s RealSense technology. Ryan Parker, of the Internet of Things retail solutions division at Intel, says when customers approach the shelf it displays the pricing whereas at other times it will show promotional imagery. The plan in the future is to potentially use it to identify specific shoppers and display personalised images and offers.

Walmart is also using Bossa Nova Robotics in 50 of its stores to identity out-of-stocks and planogram compliance issues. The robot autonomously moves along the aisles and uses visual images to determine inventory levels and check if prices are correct.

AI & robotics

Robotics were again present at NRF this year and unlike previously it was typically being showcased as real-world solutions rather than as gimmicks looking for a solution. Certainly CaliBurger is serious about the value of its robot ‘Flippy’, which has been using artificial intelligence (AI) to learn the art of flipping burgers.

John Miller, CEO of Cali Group - which runs 50 CaliBurger restaurants around the world, says: “We are linking a robotic arm to AI that uses visuals to know where the patty is and makes constant adjustments. We will be selling the software for the robotic arm and the ‘brain’ so restaurants can automate flipping burgers and hopefully soon do the same for frying fries and chopping the veg. Any such repetitive process can be automated.”

While Flippy has been in the back room during its two years of training it will shortly be brought out as a centrepiece of the restaurants. This is indicative of a broad trend for digital technology to come to the fore in stores and is reinforcing the ongoing importance of physical stores in the retail mix. And we are seeing a return of the kiosk.

The store is not dead

That most innovative of next generation retailers Rent The Runway is particularly excited about stores, which presently number only five but new openings are likely to be driven by the introduction of upgrades to its in-store kiosk.

Hampton Catlin, senior director of engineering at Rent The Runway, says the kiosks are from Aila Technologies and comprise high quality scanners fixed to iPads, which are used in-store on a self-service basis for customers to return goods that they have had out on rental – and to also rent out more goods.

Queues had been a problem at its stores but with the kiosks shoppers can scan their personal QR code that opens up their account on the iPad. A scan of the product barcodes then updates both their account and the company’s central inventory file. Payment is also taken seamlessly.

It has been a similar story at Panera Bread where Blaine Hurst, CEO of Panera Bread, says kiosks have been introduced and run in tandem with the company’s app: “Some of our stores had queues at lunch times and technology has provided us with the breakthrough to provide an experience with less friction. Also if customers use a kiosk then frequency is up 13%.”

A serious point of friction for shoe retailers is the level of returns from ill-fitting shoes, which is why retailers likes New Balance have been turning to Volumental to undertake a 3D scan of customers’ feet, which has a mere 1mm error rate across the many measurements it takes.

Ellen Dorsman, key account manager at Volumental says there has been a reduction in returns of 7% down to 4% at one retailer and at New Balance the conversion rate has been boosted by 20% when the scanning technology is used versus trying on with a sales assistant.