NRF 2018: Retail technology to banish the boredom

To steal a quote from a recent blog post from Steve Dennis, SageBerry Consulting president and former senior technologist at Neiman Marcus and Sears, “physical retail isn’t dead – boring retail is”.

And on the expo floor at this week’s National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show, there was a real push to showcase technology that aims to remove the “boring” element some retailers are accused of offering consumers at present in an age where digital capability has shifted their expectations.

There was Cisco’s Amazon-esque scan-and-go tech with additional security benefits that permits customers to self-serve and checkout in store, as well as Saleforce’s virtual reality equipment for New Balance, which enables shoppers to view the shoes of their choice being manufactured in the factory.

A huge focus was placed on solutions that aim to illuminate retail stores, grab shoppers’ attention, and help facilitate better customer experiences in brick-and-mortar retailing.

Some of the most compelling technology at the event were solutions which enhance some of the traditional store functions, but connect to retailers’ back-end systems to ensure operational efficiency and high visibility of business performance.

In 2017 it emerged that two of the UK’s largest retailers, Tesco and Morrisons, were trialling electronic shelf labels (ESL) – something that could reduce some manual tasks in store and facilitate more rapid price management strategy and promotional activity across store estates.

DisplayData, SES and Pricer were among the companies promoting eye-catching ESL solutions at NRF. The former is working with Tesco and Morrisons to find an appropriate user case, and more recently Majestic Wine inputted the solution onto individual bottles of wine as part of a new merchandising initiative in its concept stores. Meanwhile, German grocer Kaufland has the ESL technology in its 1,250+ stores.

It’s a technology that has been touted for wide adoption for several years now, but there is now excitement that 2018 could be a breakthrough year for it in retail. Paul Milner, marketing director at DisplayData, said: “The market’s ready for it – this year will be a case of execution.”

From a customer perspective, he explained, it will ensure accurate pricing based on sales velocity and inventory levels, while there is an expectation that it will free up staff to meet and greet shoppers rather than spend hours updating paper tickets.

“There are common goals across all of the sectors – operational efficiencies, freeing staff up, and marketers can now execute the programmes and price changes they want.”

Old innovators having to innovate again

NCR was marking 20 years of the self-service checkout at NRF this year, raising attention to one of the first types of technology retailers were able to introduce to their stores at the onset of the digital age. Companies like NCR have had to keep reinventing themselves as a raft of innovation has entered the space in the last two decades.

The company’s latest software aims to reduce some of the perceived pain points in self service by using scanning technology to recognise products, rather than weight, potentially making customers’ lives easier when checking out loose fruit and vegetables.

No retailer is using it yet but there is reportedly interest from the European grocery market. NCR is also working with UK start-up Yoti to connect a mobile app to its machines, enabling customers to verify themselves with facial recognition technology when buying restricted items such as alcohol.

“We continue to invest in R&D to develop greater mobility interactions from payment to digital identity to e-wallets and image verification,” explains Kalyna Stiles, NCR’s global store transformation consulting director.

“This is developed and enabled through both NCR solution expansion and partnering with other enabling providers including start-ups.”

Stiles adds: “We are empowering retailers to take advantage of mobile technologies and are helping them create powerful new experiences for consumers that fit into their busy lives and bridge the connections between digital and physical experiences.”

Tech to enable vendor microservices

So much of the disruptive and revolutionary technology cannot actually be seen, but it enables vendors to offer a range of microservices to retailers. It is the type of technology that, via open API connection to a retailer’s central systems, has the capacity to cause a fundamental shift in how retailers operate.

Nikki Baird, managing partner at industry intelligence group RSR Research, said she was taken with the high number of in-store customer tracking solutions on show – from the likes of Tyco-owned Shoppertrak and Intel.

“Lots of this tech has been around since 2005, but what’s innovative about it is there are now solutions that can do something with that data, and they can create the connections to the other solutions,” she explains.

Baird says technology that provides in-store customer heatmaps, for example, can now link quickly to devices used by store management, facilitating real-time amendments to operations, layout, etc.

“Ten years ago that would have been a $10 million project and it’d take 18-24 months to pull off – and that would be solely for the one store for the pilot,” Baird argues.

“Now, I’m talking to vendors here who are setting up partnerships in weeks. That encapsulates the difference from years gone by. All these technologies have been around forever, but no-one ever implemented them because to get the value they had to have a tool to do something with that data.”

She adds: “Now they can, but it’s up to retailers to make the gut-wrenching infrastructure change decisions, so they can have these solutions working in four weeks instead of 18 months.”

That's the type of technological change that will help retailers banish the "boring" store experiences, and successfully implement much of the compelling technology that's been on display all week at this showcase event in New York.