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A view from NRF: the year in-store mobility came of age

After several false starts, 2014 looks set to be the year when effective mobile technology is finally put into the hands of in-store staff.
The reason for this is that technologists – the people who make it work – have at last taken retail mobility seriously. It’s no coincidence that the big technology players, HP and Toshiba Global Services (previously IBM), have both launched tablets aimed squarely at the retail market.
These products are full-blown PCs deliberately designed to look and feel like an iPad. They are fitted with ruggedised jackets that include 1D and 2D barcode scanning, magnetic stripe readers and extended battery life so that the device will last a full day on the shop floor without the need to be recharged.        
Docked onto a stand, the tablet becomes a full-blown and comprehensive static PoS terminal with full connectivity. Elsewhere, it works equally effectively as the manager’s back-office PC, a handheld device for stocktaking or merchandising and as a powerful aid for assisted selling.
Although each application may not in itself represent a dramatic technological leap forward, the fact that leading manufacturers are for the first time providing such advanced tablets is a major breakthrough.
The products are exactly as you’d expect from these manufacturers - thoughtfully-designed, well-built and priced accordingly. However, a brief look around the exhibition quickly identified other suppliers providing highly functional alternatives at lower prices, if lacking the robustness of the HP or Toshiba products.
So, with all this choice, will we see tablets take over the high street in the next 12 months? The answer, I’m afraid, is no. 
We know that high-end devices are already being trialled in at least one UK departmental chain. Yet any tablet option has a price tag attached and is likely to be considered only when existing in-store  technologies are being reviewed, rather than retailers throwing away existing solutions and starting again. 
However, there is no doubt that the move by HP and Toshiba will start to generate significant momentum, in an area where retailers can achieve significant internal 
efficiencies as they look to service their customers better.       
So what else is new in the world of retail technology? Well, I don’t doubt there will undoubtedly still be some exciting nuggets to unearth with still a full day to get round this vast arena. However, another area where there has clearly been a lot investment effort is in the area of digital media, as retailers look to increase the quality and visual impact of the in-store experience. 
The overwhelming reaction at this year’s NRF is a feeling of confidence coming back to the retail sector. The numbers are up – 200,000 sq ft of exhibition space and 30,000 visitors from around the globe – and the stands look bigger and more impressive than ever. The quality of giveaways is another pointer, with the sweets and pens of the past two years replaced with USB chargers for the car and long life batteries for mobiles. Now, where’s that other suitcase…?