#NRF2019: Technology hook-ups make for productive marriages in retail

NRF is always absorbing. Here I am again exploring cutting-edge retail technology at the Javits Center in NYC for NRF 2019. That’s me and tens of thousands of other retail tech insiders.

What’s impressive this year is how different technologies are being married to produce solutions that are innovative, practical and affordable in the true sense of the word.

Connected retail

We’ve seen plenty of IoT initiatives involving machine learning and sensors, but the cost of entry was often too high. That’s changing. Powerful Intel chips, for example, are behind about 70% of the digital signage screens on display, allowing retailers to demonstrate incredible quality of imagery. In relative terms the chips about 60 times cheaper than when they were first introduced a decade or so ago, giving more retailers access to the kind of dazzling digital display technology, compute power and computer vision on show at NRF.

Internet connectivity and speed (bandwidth) has also increased and become 50 times faster over the same period, so that connected retail devices really can work together as optimally as intended.  The second phase of the IoT is becoming a retail reality, with systems integrators and software houses actively pursuing practical solutions that are not held back by the old limitations.

On the back of Intel’s success in this area they have launched the ‘open retail initiative’, which is the first IoT open source initiative that focuses on enabling retailers to unlock the power of data and insights within their business to scale and address market challenges. At the heart of each collaboration is the Intel chip technology and customer vision technology which is a major aspect of NRF. With the ability to analyse images, computer vision solutions using sensors and scanners can judge the age, gender and mood of shoppers, while using the power of AI to gauge behaviour and the likelihood of an individual moving to a purchase. The power of these solutions is enabling retailers to bridge the gap between online and physical retail producing an immersive and interactive experience for in-store consumers. 

These marriages of technologies also address the major problems surrounding loss of products. A great example of this is a collaboration between Intel MeldCx and Aopen to create the first AI-enabled computer vision bulk scale and labelling systems. These will help retailers tackle the problem of inaccurate product identification at scales and also theft through misidentification mispricing by using computer vision to identify accurately the product on the scales, allowing it to be correctly priced. This tackles the issue of businesses selling high value food products cheaper, either mistakenly or as a result of fraud.

Another example of a collaborative initiative is Pensa. They were exhibiting AI-powered drones which are designed to accurately assess retail inventory in a store and automatically communicate issues such as stock outages to the business. The great benefit of such an initiative is that retailers can stock check at a quicker rate than could ever be humanly possible, ensuring they quickly replace goods and meet consumer demand.

Furthermore, in the era of emerging frictionless retail technology, I was impressed by the start-up Cloudpick. This uses computer vision, machine learning and IoT sensing technology to allow members of the same family or a group of friends to shop in a store and use a single account. For example, a family would scan their devices on entry to the store and they would all be linked to a single account. All items selected by the family members during their time in the store would then be recognised as belonging to the same account.

POS technology

The other notable trend at NRF has been the resurgence of point-of-sale technology (POS). If the high street and shopping mall is dying out, why are so many of the big names producing such advanced POS systems? There are certainly many impressive examples at NRF, packed with enhanced security and a wealth of functionality. What I have seen has confirmed that we are moving towards a more hybrid POS, which is basically fixed but detachable. Many retailers still have a strong incentive to have fixed points of sale because it optimises opportunities for upselling.

But it confirms that POS is the workhorse of retail and the new systems with all their connectivity and interoperability are providing the horsepower to drive the evolution of omnichannel commerce.

For example, NCR has a self-checkout system which uses computer vision and computer learning that not only identifies products through the checkout system but also identifies items that may not have been scanned. Furthermore, it identifies when multiple items have been scanned together, when extra items have been placed in a bag but not paid for and when items have been deliberately scanned using the incorrect price. This is a fantastic innovation for self-checkout loss prevention.

Finally, NRF bears out that one of the dominant trends in retail is self-service and the rise of the self-checkout.  It used to be only the top-tier grocery retailers who could invest in this technology, but at NRF you can see how hardware manufacturers and software designers are collaborating on solutions that work in many other settings, including fast food outlets.  These complement fixed service and till-points and are popular with the all-important 16-34 age group.

As ever, retail technologists are spotting a trend and bombarding it with solutions. Not all will work, but it certainly is exciting to be at the centre of this battleground of innovation and creativity.