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NRF 2018: The tech is getting better all the time for retailers

There were fewer dancing robots and less of the drone-based conversations at the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Big Show this year, as the technology providers served up options for the retail industry displaying some real business benefits.

In previous years much of the tech included on the expo floor has arguably generated an image of the distant future, but last week there were far more ‘the future is now’ and ready-for-use-today solutions around the aisles of New York’s Javits Centre.

Of course, there were still elements of a robotic retail future – Pepper the Robot was an ever-present at the SAP stand – but, in the main, the tech companies are compiling a set of technologies and services that retailers can tap into today, for immediate gain.

Revolution

“It did feel as if the show had matured in terms of the context and the conversations, particularly around technology,” notes Andrew Busby, founder of the Retail Reflections consultancy, who was in the majority by picking out artificial intelligence (AI) as the key trend.

“I was fairly convinced by AI before the show, but I am even more sure AI will provide a platform for growth and, in some cases, survival for retailers,” he says.

“It’s an enabler of so many things retailers are trying to achieve. There is not one retailer that isn’t trying to deliver a better customer experience and, as part of that, one-to-one experiences. You simply can’t deliver a true personalised experience – by which I mean relevant, engaging and within context – without AI.”

The relevancy Busby speaks of from the expo floor, which was echoed by various analysts and retailers attending the three-day event, was arguably fostered by the multiple technology partnerships and blended solutions on display.

Busby comments: “Whereas there seemed to be individual pockets of technology previously, now it’s been blended. We’ve all seen smart mirrors before but this time it was facial recognition with AI.

“It wasn’t simply tech for the sake of tech – it was being put to good use. NRF this time around went some way to answering the ‘so what?’ question. In the past, sometimes the benefits of the technology have been unclear.”

Come together

Perhaps a trend that makes this feeling of relevancy more permanent is the recent spate of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the retail technology space.

There have been some industry-defining comings together in recent times, many of which were showcased on the expo floor. Oracle and Netsuite, Aptos and TXT Retail, Salesforce and Demandware, and Stratacache and Walkbase, for example.

And that trend is set to continue as the tech companies look to create the end-to-end solutions and services required in the modern retail landscape.

Cegid has recently just appointed an M&D director to assess opportunities in the marketplace that might help the tech business achieve its “2021 strategy” of doubling revenues over the next three years. At the end of 2017, the company announced the acquisition of Cylande, which provides enterprise resource planning software solutions for retail head offices, warehouses and stores – but it wants to acquire again.

Samir Belkhayet, Cegid’s business development director and country manager for the UK, says: “My belief is that there are no big, new trends [at NRF] in terms of product or technology – it’s the same technology as last year: mobile, omnichannel, analytics.

“What is changing is the number of suppliers here. Consolidation is in progress, everyone wants to grow to become international and have a large portfolio for retail.”

He added “For retailers, it is also what they are expecting. They want fewer players but more specialised players with a large portfolio.”

Fixing a hole

Just a matter of days after NRF came to an end, Amazon unveiled its first grab-and-go store, which allows consumers who have its shopping app to enter the Seattle premises, choose their items and walk out without having to navigate checkouts or cashiers.

With such a revolution in store-based shopping now a reality – and with other big companies making plans to trial their own versions – there was unsurprisingly a lot of talk at NRF about the role of the traditional shop.

As reported by Essential Retail, there was a vast array of technology helping add colour and energy to the store experience, something all retailers are going to need to consider if they are to keep consumers entertained and inspired in a digital age.

There were also many solution providers referencing ways to bring the transparency of online shopping – where retailers are able to understand consumers’ paths to purchase much easier and recognise them when visiting a website – to the store environment.

John Allen, chief technology officer of fashion brand Missguided, which has recently evolved from online-only retailing to having two stores and a wholesale arm, says this is a key challenge in physical retail.

The first thing that happens when retailers move from a digital-only model to an operation that includes stores is the breakdown in the link between location of the product and the location of the customer, he says.

Despite acknowledging an uptake of circa 60% in digital receipts and high satisfaction levels amongst its click & collect customers, both of which help Missguided get closer to its in-store shoppers, Allen notes: “[Assessing] movements in store and location of product in juxtaposition with the customer is really difficult.”

He adds: “I’ve walked around NRF, and everyone is talking about those concepts. How do you get that relationship with the customer and the product, and how do you make that happen?”

Allen argues that measuring the return on investment for stores is challenging, but called on retailers to look “beyond the realms of just the transaction”.

“You have to look at the way the customer behaves and also the value that [store] can bring for brand awareness,” he explains.

And judging by the theme of many conversations, presentations and conference sessions at NRF, the focus on how the store functions and how its success is measured in a digital age is sure to continue between now and next year’s NRF Big Show.

In the meantime, the industry can spend 2018 assessing how AI and the array of blended technologies shown at this year’s event can support their business model – and perhaps more so than ever take immediate action.

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