Everybody knows that retail is having a tough time but the one undoubted savior of the industry is technology. It cannot be overstated how valuable it now is to retailers – to such a degree that it will determine who the winners are and who sadly are the losers in the future.
The challenge facing retailers is which routes to take when deciding on their choice of technology products. Arguably there have never been so many solutions in the marketplace – which is a manifestation of the rapid developments in agile, plug-and-play applications combined with the widespread adoption of hosting in the cloud.
Thankfully we have NRF’s annual Big Show – that runs January 13-15 in New York City – to help retailers make these tough choices. It provides the annual platform for leaders from both the worlds of retail and technology to come together in one big jamboree and to hopefully come to some conclusions about what solutions are to be adopted and also create the roadmaps for the forthcoming year and beyond.
What has complicated matters for retailers is the unprecedented acceleration in the development of new solutions over recent years. It would have been inconceivable only a handful of years ago to have considered having autonomous vehicles delivering goods to customers and for drones to be flying around stores undertaking stock checks but at NRF there will be a number of such workable solutions.
Such has been the growth in new businesses providing these types of cutting edge solutions for retailers that this year’s NRF not only includes the Innovation Lab area but also a new Startup Zone. The amount of EXPO area given over to cutting edge providers clearly continues to grow.
Many of these businesses will be showcasing products based around the exciting areas of Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and machine learning. And maybe there will be a sprinkling of blockchain technology in there too.
But whereas in the past many of these technologies had been looking for real use cases the situation today is that the capabilities of these exciting areas of IT have sufficiently advanced to be able to now provide real returns on investment for retailers. This is absolutely paramount because there is no time or resources available to simply tinker around. Retailers need to satisfy tight budgetary constraints and concentrate on where they will generate the greatest returns.
One area that has been interesting over recent years is interfaces and CX. The ability to use visual search instead of text has become more apparent and will no doubt be built into many solutions at NRF this year. It might also be the year we see some real breakthroughs in voice-based solutions as the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple clearly see this as the future way to interact.
But what will absolutely be underpinning these developments are the solutions that can help knit them all together. There has never been a most critical time to ensure the underlying technology infrastructure of retailers is capable of plugging in these myriad new applications.
Many businesses are currently on the journey of adopting such infrastructures and implementing agile ways of working, which is why this year there will be no escape from discussions on digital transformations and change management. Many of the presentations on NRF’s numerous stages will undoubtedly focus on this issue. Walmart for instance has a session in this year’s schedule when its CIO and CTO will be talking about the US giant’s ongoing digital transformation.
While there will be many new glitzy, show-off products at NRF this year – which clearly makes it interesting – the reality for many retailers is that much of their conversations will be a tad more mundane. They will again be around the implementation of underlying systems that enable them to take advantage of the new solutions that continue to hit the market. Such a focus will be most critical in determining their success or failure in the future.