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NRF 2018 comment: A new era of retail intelligence

This week, the Javits centre in NYC hosted NRF 2018, welcoming over 36,000 attendees to its Retail’s Big Show. This year’s show had everything from robotics to analytics, and collaboration... lots of collaboration.

Over the last few years I have witnessed some of the most innovative retail technology on show at NRF, however, some of it will never make it through to the a real-world scenario or will be superseded by newer technology before its had a chance to become a viable investment for a retailer.

This year things are a little different, innovations in AI, computer learning, augmented reality and robots were all stars of the the show and are being demonstrated in real-world scenarios, with large organisations such as Intel and IBM collaborating with smaller technology businesses to create technology that really will power retailer’s customer engagement using predictive analytics and deep learning.

I have written about how impressed I have been with IBM Watson’s capability in my coverage of past NRF expo’s, but all the major players are here in force with their take on AI with SAP, SAS and Microsoft all demonstrating impressive use of this now established technology.

Innovation Lab

I always make a point of heading to the Innovation Lab, over the years I have seen this grow from a small area in the bowels of the Javits, demonstrating some very cool but impractical technology for use in retail, to this year having a place at the heart of the expo, demonstrating some leading-edge technology.

Fellow Robots (the Navii) demonstrated how they have deployed robots into a real-world scenario, Retailer Lowes was using the robot to simplify its inventory process, where the robot moves along the store and a range of camera’s and sensors located within the robot scan the shelves and aisles for stock, assisting the in-store colleagues with access to the findings via an app.

Lowes’ robots highlights stock shortages, and misplaced or damaged items. The robots utilise machine learning and computer vision to provide the retailer with real- time shelf analytics. Interestingly, the data isn’t sent into the cloud, the robot acts as the cloud, with all the data processed within its in-built GPU’s. As I mentioned collaborations, Fellow have used Microsoft Azure and Power BI within their systems.

Retail Next’s have built upon its retail analytics experience with the launch of aurora V2, this very clever retail analytics sensor which now has on-board deep learning based AI, this again is another example of  where in-store devices are being used to process and analyse data rather than pushing it to the cloud to be analysed. The in-built advanced human activity recognition software can provide a wide range of customer tracking and behaviour analytics which is accessible at store and corporate level.

Carrying on the theme of intelligent devices, Epson unveiled its latest PoS printer, based on the reliable trusted TM88 printer, the new TM88VI brings intelligence to a device that in the past only role was to print receipts. The Vi brings data analytics to the PoS, analysing transaction data at the point of print, providing store managers with sales analytics at the store level. Powered by Epson’s own Omni link Merchant services OMS, data such as product sales, transaction volume by time by location can all be displayed on live store analytic dash boards, basically if the data is sent to the printer dashboards can be easily configured to report on the data and trends.

The interesting trend at NRF 2018 is that technology companies have addressed the need to simplify data analytics, AI is key to this and retailers came to NRF en masse to see it. Machine learning will be at the core of successful retail businesses, online or bricks and mortar stores all need to understand their customers, and collating big data on their customers is pointless unless they are able to analyse the data in real time.

The days of weekly trend reporting have gone, retailers need to be able to respond to trends immediately, more established users of AI will be able to benefit from its predictive capabilities.  

James Pepper is the technical services director at Vista Retail.

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