I will admit, during my last 12 plus years in retail, trips to the NRF show were a blur. We would always end up with a very rigorous schedule of meetings and presentations that left very little time to “explore.” Even when we did find some time, walking up to a booth with Lowe’s or L Brands on your badge was like a magnet. Often times we were pulled into a discussion that lasted anywhere from ten to thirty minutes. Needless to say, it was hard to see much of the show.
So, when I attended the NRF Big Show last week, for the first time in quite a while, I found some time to walk the floor and see some of the new offerings and innovations from various providers.
I spent a few hours walking the floor, taking notes on the various categories and types of technology while also observing where the crowds were congregating. The first thing that hit me was the sophistication of some of the booths. We have come to expect massive, multi-level booths with slick displays from some of the bigger industry players, and trust me; they did not disappoint. However, I was shocked at the size and sophistication of the booths of some of the smaller providers.
After getting past the “shock and awe” of the booths, I started to observe themes across the floor. Payment processing is huge! Over 40 different providers were offering payment-processing solutions at the show. While we have seen a tremendous amount of innovation in payment processing in the past few years, I still didn’t expect to see so many different solutions available. From new versions of mobile payment to multi-channel payment, security, and integrated loyalty, there was an amazing number of new payment technologies on display at the show. As retailers continue to build out new customer experiences and focus on a “frictionless” checkout process, payment processing will continue to be a hot category.
I was very excited to see a lot of new solutions focused on improving the productivity of store associates. While we have seen technologies that provide insights into store associate productivity and task management for a few years, the technologies on display at the show were taking it a step further. Clientelling apps, sales floor multi-channel selling, voice integrated apps, click and collect innovations, sales floor analytics, and integrated inventory management were a few of the innovations I observed as I walked the floor. Tools that help stores navigate the transition to omnichannel while offering new/improved customer experiences are essential for modern retailers. It was great to see the crowds at the booths discussing these topics.
While discussing store technologies, I have to note the tremendous number of providers offering new IOT technologies targeted for in-store applications. I observed some great looking (and practical) electronic shelf labels, very compelling IOT product tags, video traffic and analytics, high definition electronic store signage, self-service kiosks, and some excellent in-store analytics solutions that tied all of the IOT technologies together. These technologies, coupled with the store associate productivity solutions, offer a lot of promise for the next generation of in-store customer experience.
Having the right staff on the sales floor at the right time to influence customer purchases is a key enabler for the store experiences of the future. All of the traditional leaders in this space were present at NRF with new features and capabilities. Also, many newer solutions touting AI, video analytics, and enhanced collaboration were on display across the Expo Floor.
At the heart of workforce management solutions is the labor-scheduling component. Many of the solutions on display incorporated AI into their scheduling engine to drive better optimization of store labor. I was also excited to see the emergence of queue analysis and video analytics as parts of these solutions. The increased intelligence of these solutions, coupled with improved user interfaces, provides store managers with unprecedented visibility into their workforce.
Many of the workforce management providers have developed capabilities to improve communication and collaboration with store associates thru mobile apps. Some of the capabilities provided via mobile apps include communicating schedules, allowing for vacation requests, assigning tasks/roles for the day, and providing real-time feedback and training. As the retail workforce continues to shift to the Millennials and Gen Z, these capabilities are rapidly becoming a “must have” for retailers.
Of course, no discussion of retail technologies would be complete without mentioning commerce engines. Integrated POS, inventory, order management, pricing/promotions, and fulfillment capabilities are the hallmarks of omnichannel. The transformation of the NRF Expo floor from POS hardware/services to these new integrated selling environments is one of the most noticeable differences over the past ten years.
The new end-point devices for POS are sleeker, faster, and easier to use than ever before. Mobile POS capabilities continue to improve, with many of the more advanced providers providing a seamless transition from in-store to multi-channel fulfillment. Many of the POS devices demonstrated the integration with the payment solutions I spoke of earlier. The combination of new platforms, integrated cross-channel inventory, enhanced customer information, and more frictionless payment build the foundation for very promising in-store experiences.
On the e-commerce side, a number of new customer experiences were on display. Augmented and Virtual Reality along with image recognition and visual search were the most prominent new capabilities publicized on the Expo floor.
The final big theme that I observed was one that can be either a standalone or supplementary technology. I am speaking of advanced analytics and AI. Many of the solutions I have written about already are incorporating new advances in analytics to augment their capabilities. Whether it was commerce, product lifecycle management, fraud detection, pricing, promotions, workforce management, supply chain, store operations, or payment processing, almost all of these solutions were touting the use of advanced analytics and AI. In fact, in all, nearly 130 vendors on the Expo floor identified with the category of “Artificial Intelligence.”
There were also many standalone analytics platforms on display across the Expo floor offering a horizontal solution to the various retail vertical functions. These horizontal platforms present an interesting challenge for retailers. Should a retailer opt for siloed analytic solutions tightly linked to functional applications or choose a horizontal platform that provides consistency of analytics but requires building of specific models/analytics for the various retail functions? This debate will likely be played out in many retailers in 2019 and 2020 as advanced analytics and AI reach critical mass across the industry.
In summary, it was a great show with a lot of buzz on the Expo floor again. It is evident that retailers are mobilizing to improve their customer relationships through new and improved experiences and business models. Aside from the customer and business growth, retailers are focused on increasing efficiencies and automating more processes that have traditionally been analog.
In short, there has never been a better time to be in retail and retail technology!