NRF - all changing and nothing is changing - K3

NRF 2018 setting the agenda for the year ahead

Judging by the record breaking number of visitors at this years’s NRF Retail’s Big Show in New York City technology must be high up on the agendas of retailers around the world who fully recognise that it partly represents the solution to many of the challenges they face in the industry.

Around 35,000 visitors will have attended NRF over its three days this year, which includes 18,000 retailers who will have made the journey from 95 different countries. They make this pilgrimage to visit the extensive exhibition space that this year housed 1,600 booths showcasing the leading retail technologies from around the world.

Putting technology at the heart of your business

This is complemented by the varied presentations on numerous stages from leading retail executives that this year included Doug McMillon, CEO of the world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart, who set the tone for the event with his key message. He is putting technology at the heart of the business – as seen through the company’s acquisitions of numerous e-commerce businesses – but recognises that it must aligned with all the people within the organisation.

By paying shop floor employees more money and providing them with extensive training his view is that they will then be much more willing – and able – participants in the digital transformation journey that the company is currently taking. Without them all onboard the introduction of things like hand-held devices for in-store employees and the implementation of greater automation will be a much tougher task and will hold back the company from its strategic aims.

Automation was certainly evident again this year. From robots that use visual recognition to stock check by scanning shelves autonomously and then prompting replenishment action, to workforce management solutions that take the myriad of data feeds through APIs and assign employees accordingly without the need for human monitoring or intervention.

Artificial Intelligence  – the next big thing

However, the big thing this year has to be Artificial Intelligence (AI). It is rare to find a solution or hear a presentation that does not include AI in some way. Arguably it has become a little over hyped. Chatbots are the low-hanging fruit of using the technology and they are delivering some powerful returns such as improved conversion rates.

The other widespread use of AI is with the visual recognition solutions. The ability to search on an image rather than relying on text on a retailers’ website is proving very valuable. This is one of the ways that text-based interactions are disappearing. The other way is through voice but there were not the myriad solutions at NRF with voice involved that might have been expected – beyond its use in chatbots. Maybe this will change next year.

Whatever solutions are being used it is obvious that there is a need for greater collaboration and the necessity to work with partners. The trend for large retailers to hook up with smaller technology specialists to deliver specific solutions is only going to grow.

The Store renaissance

What was also apparent at this year’s event was the renaissance of the store. It was clear that stores are far from being a redundant commodity and the likes of Rent The Runway – that rents out clothing – is among the pure-plays that are now opening stores.

They were at NRF highlighting their use of iPads with high-end scanners attached that enable them to deal quickly with the massive number of people using their stores to return and collect clothing. The self-service approach is speeding things up and the stores also reduce the cost of delivery from online orders.

This highlights how such companies are focused on marrying this physical space with digital solutions. This can be kiosks (yes, they are far from being dead as shown by Rent The Runway) and employees sporting tablets with access to real-time inventory and recommendation engines that significantly enhance the customers’ engagement.

So whereas some things in retail are being dramatically changed by technology and traditional models are being upended there are some aspects that seem set to continue to be a core component of the sector, namely those most old school and supposedly outdated of things: people and stores.