This year at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference, NRF, there weren’t any ah-ha moments. There was no massive new concept or “thing” that everyone buzzed about. Rather, we saw a lot of subtle improvements on existing tech. While it might not make for as exciting of a show, NRF 2019 offered real solutions to help improve retailers’ and consumers’ lives right now and provided signposts of where the industry is going — and where it maybe should rethink things.
Much as we saw at CES, NRF showed signs of a new generation of “Platform Wars,” with large-scale platform players competing to lock up partnerships with retailers to offer end-to-end one-stop shopping solutions. For example, the Microsoft presentation was a great example of this; they showcased everything from digital signage (in partnership with Kroger) to Delivery Management Systems and inventory control to robots and in-store cashierless shopping (à la Amazon Go).
The implication of a full suite of digital retail solutions that are all “Powered by Microsoft” is a return to the “walled garden” model of platforms. It’s a throwback to the late 20th century, where companies would pick one platform and stick with it, versus today’s more common arrangement of stitching together a variety of solutions from different platforms that all share data. The concern is that the attitudes of the big and medium-sized companies are based on smaller interlopers weaving their way between those companies and their customers. That’s what’s driving this behavior, and it remains to be seen if this a long- or short-term thing.
Checkout-Free Options Fail To Live Up To The Hype
Checkout-free store options were well-represented, with many different companies wading into the fray. Some offered full-service, Amazon Go-type experiences, but most showcased single solutions that lent themselves to various levels of self-checkout capability. These ranged from shopping carts with cameras to scan items, to wands that the consumer carries with them to scan items. Sadly, none of these products appear to be a “must-have,” and most came off as merely jumping on the bandwagon of the cashierless store trend. Companies tried to claim that these tools would help “reduce friction,” but in reality, many of them added far more friction than they removed.
Changing The Customer/Sales Associate Relationship
On the opposite end of the spectrum, NRF featured a variety of solutions that aimed to make the relationship between the customer and the sales associate more efficient, as opposed to trying to get rid of it altogether. One of the bright spots was the announcement of the partnership between Walgreens and Zebra Technologies. The drug retailer is retiring their legacy OMS and inventory systems and replacing it with Zebra’s mobile computer and tablets, which allow store associates to know exactly what customers are seeking so they can help them find what they want. The Zebra tools also boast an attractive interface, which will help it integrate more easily into a workforce that has never used a tech interface on the job before. For far too long it seems retailers have focused on technology for customers instead of — or even at the expense of — their employees, and we’re pleased to see this breaking that trend.
Another area focused on improving the customer/sales associate relationship: tracking movement via sensors, photography and video. Computer vision is the primary technology in this group that is growing rapidly, as both the capabilities and proposed uses have expanded. Other examples include store heat mapping, offered by companies like Stratacache, which track employees’ and shoppers’ movements in the store to provide insights on their interactions. For retailers who want more detailed analysis, some companies like Lenovo are offering sentiment analysis that uses cameras and AI-driven software to identify characteristics like the gender, age and emotional state of its customers.
A Wow-Worthy Display
Our star product was Glass Media’s projection-based, end-to-end digital retail signage. Their glass-cling window display product is nothing short of magic and puts AMOLED TVs to shame in terms of digital signage. Their display, which was tucked away upstairs without much fanfare, was outstanding even in direct sunlight and has dozens of applications. While their content management system is a little immature, we’re confident that with investment, it will grow to be as robust as their hardware and be an outstanding product overall.
Area For Improvement: Digital Payments
Our biggest disappointment from NRF was also what we thought one of the biggest trends would be: digital payments. We were surprised to see little progress being made in the way of a step-change in digital payments. 2018 saw some progress, with banks buying/incorporating peer-to-peer payment systems and Square releasing a Software Development Kit (SDK), so retailers could incorporate Square’s payment gateway directly into their native commerce platforms and apps. However, aside from replacing the physical card, no steps are really being taken to provide retail shoppers with real-time financial information that may help them with purchase decisions and “how to pay” discussions.
An Industry On The Cusp
We are in a cusp period: the technological advances of recent years are being fine-tuned and are finally coming out of the lab and into the malls, but the next big thing isn’t yet on the horizon. NRF showed us some good examples and some not-so-good examples of this. In the long run, we believe this cusp period — where companies are racing to one-up each other using fundamentally the same technology — as stirring up competition, which drives down prices and increases innovation.
This was a great NRF not so much for showcasing what’s coming, but for showing us how we can better use what we have today. While there were no eureka moments, we left NRF 2019 with lots of thoughts about how we can best use the technology available right now until the next big thing comes along.
Jon Reily is VP, Commerce Strategy at Publicis.Sapient. He is an e-Commerce veteran with nearly 25 years in the space. A founder of two successful companies in the 1990s, he’s also helped brands such as Prudential, GoDaddy and Guitar Center innovate their digital futures. Before joining Publicis.Sapient, Reily was with Amazon.com where he re-invented how Amazon sells and markets their 1st-party manufactured devices, such as Kindle Fire and FireTV, and helped create a multi-billion dollar business division within Amazon. Steve White is VP, Commerce Strategy. He is a digital agency veteran, entrepreneur and executive within Publicis.Sapient’s Retail Practice. He specializes in helping clients navigate Digital Business Transformation via comprehensive commerce strategies, IT Modernization, Data/AI and explorations around the store of the future. White is a council member of the National Retail Federation, speaker and frequent media contributor.