NRF 2017: Retail technology news heard on the expo floor

Essential Retail has been at the National Retail Federation's (NRF) Big Show all week, checking out the retail sessions and the technology expo. On our travels around the show floor, we've picked up on some of the latest announcements from the retail technology world – including partnerships, new business wins and fresh strategies.

Following on from its recent WHSmith contract extension in the UK, Aptos announced it is to work with US apparel chain, Buckle. The retailer will use the vendor's integrated Singular Commerce solution, as part of a tech infrastructure upgrade across its estate.

Talking 14 weeks after BT Expedite was acquired by Aptos to create an end-to-end commerce solution to take to market, Richard Willis, VP of solutions management for EMEA region at Aptos, said: "WHSmith has been a long-term customer of BT Expedite. One of the keys to moving across to Aptos was extending that relationship whereby WHSmith knows it has a reliable partner to run a managed service – we are responsible for the full management of the WHSmith stores.

"We've extended that contract and it's creating value both ways. Within the extended relationship, we are also moving them on to the latest Aptos platform – that's a key part of the ongoing relationship."

On the subject of other new business in the UK, he said it is "early days" but "there's a lot of opportunity and excitement among our customer base around the extended application – the Singular Commerce platform".

He added: "From a North American perspective, we've got great wins including with fashion chain Buckle. In North America, the value proposition has been landing and we're winning business on a monthly basis."

Virtual reality (VR) has been one of the major themes of the event, with an area dedicated to the innovation going on in this space. Essential Retail trialled Marxent's solution, which is being rolled out in 2017 by US manufacturer and retailer, Ashley Furniture.

The tool gives consumers a chance to design their home, while using a VR headset and remote control. Ashley's product range has been scanned by Marxent, allowing it to feature in the virtual experience and give users an opportunity to see what real-life items look like in their home environment.

Vince Kilian, one of the founding members of the product team at Marxent, said: "It's needed now more than ever – it's something consumers have been asking for over a long period of time.

"The process right now is very cumbersome. It's difficult to imagine things in the abstract, especially high expense purchases such as kitchen remodelling and home remodelling.

"With technology like ours, you get to see it before you buy it – we feel like that's the evolution you go from eCommerce to v-commerce, standing in full-scale rooms where you can say 'I've been in my dream kitchen' or 'I've been in my dream bathroom or bedroom' before tweaking it, playing with it and seeing it at scale."

He added: "It gamifies a terrifying experience where otherwise you have to spend lots of money, spend a lot of time in stores, have multiple visits with design specialists. What we allow you to do is do it at home or do it in store if you don't have the technology. It should take under ten minutes to make something beautiful."

Technology mounting device provider, SpacePole, was showcasing how its products aimed at retail and hospitality businesses have been evolving with the times, keeping pace with the sector's move towards in-store mobility.

The company offers a range of products that retailers can use to house, store and secure their mobile devices, which are now increasingly used at the point of sale (PoS) and to serve customers around the shopfloor.

Colin Mackie, director of sales operations & marketing at SpacePole's parent company Ergonomic Solutions, commented: "It's going from static technology mounting solutions to mobile, which is reflecting what is happening in retail.

"Traditional point of sale is becoming much more mobile. We enable that – there are new applications and tablets – but how do you actually make them work in a practical way? That's what we're trying to provide."

The company is also showcasing security boxes – Universal Charging Stations (UCS) – which give retailers a chance to store away this kit and ensure it is kept charged up at the same time.

"Macy's and New Look have gone for UCS devices, allowing them to sync and charge their tablets – a lot of their applications now run on tablet and they need them to work all the time, and they must be secure," noted Mackie.

"If retailers want to deploy tablets, there are certain things retailers need to think about. We're trying to show them we can educate them to help them have a successful in-store strategy."

Point of sale printer provider Star Micronics had some new solutions on show, highlighting how it is keeping up to date with changing customer and merchant requirements in the retail space.

Among the products being promoted were Star Cloud Services and Itemize. The former offers a free digital receipt and customer engagement tools with Star receipt printer peripherals, while the company has teamed up with the latter to evolve the digital expense receipt market.

By scanning the AllReceipts QR code within the Itemize app, shoppers are able to automatically store a digital and secure record of their purchase. Annette Tarlton, marketing director for Star Micronics EMEA, explained: "What we are doing now is taking IoT on board and we're making it a reality in the PoS world.

"Free of charge on all our printers now is digital receipting – everyone says it's included in the software anyway but that's actually 'email receipting' – it's not something that comes straight to a consumer's phone with four-colour pictures, complete with offers and engagement tools.

"It's an engagement tool that can send out alerts. Emails can disappear in spam, but this takes me to what I as a customer want to know."

Star Cloud Services has partnered with foot traffic sensor provider Dôr to give retailers more knowledge of conversion rates based on people who actually entered their stores. With Dôr synced to Star's printers, retailers can see how many customers are visiting their store compared to how many purchases are being made, using this information to optimise staffing and improve marketing spending.

Smaller retailers are being targeted by Star for this technology, with Tarlton saying: "This is designed for tier two, tier three and smaller retailers. All our little guys want to play in this game, and that's what we're enabling them to do."

Other news in brief

It is only in test stage, but Microsoft-supported Shelfie is being used by UK grocer The Co-op Food to help count stock and manage inventory. Shelfie is a retail shelf analytics platform that uses a robot to undertake stock checks in stores, giving head office staff a central tool to check on-shelf inventory levels and item positioning against a predetermined design.

Queue management systems provider Qmatic has partnered with Swedish company Shortcut Labs, the organisation behind the Flic wireless smart button. This partnership means that store associates can access functions in Qmatic's mobile app through a wireless click of a physical button. Flic wireless buttons use Bluetooth technology to interact with a smartphone from a distance of up to 150 feet.

The Flic button can immediately be integrated with Qmatic's new and existing Orchestra 6 systems.

Analytics and big data business, Manthan, launched what it described as the industry's first artificial intelligence (AI) powered conversational agent for business analytics.

Whereas voice-based personal assistants have been in existence for some time, the market for conversational agents for business analytics applications is at a more nascent stage. The solution – called Maya – enables users to interact with enterprise applications as if they were human, using language and AI-powered insights "for decision making on-the-fly".

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) announced a partnership with Aurus as part of a strategy to boost the organisation's unified payment platform, OmniStore. TCS OmniStore is positioned to replace legacy PoS, and provide a platform for connecting payments data and capability across a retailer's channels.

Meanwhile, electronic shelf label (ESL) business Displaydata launched Aura29F ESL, designed for use in frozen sections of retail stores. It can operate in a temperature range used in retail store freezers of between -13 degrees F and 32 degrees F. 

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