What I learned at NRF

By Mike Troy

Mobile, social, solution, cloud, big data, SaaS, optimize and engage. It was impossible to have a conversation at the National Retail Federation convention in New York without hearing these words — a lot.

The frequent use of technology’s top buzzwords is understandable because the NRF convention is all about retail technology. The biggest names in technology world – IBM, Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, SAS, NCR, Intel, Motorola, NCR and Cisco – occupy massive exhibits that bustle with activity throughout the show. Hundreds of less familiar companies have smaller exhibits that are equally busy as more than 25,000 people attended NRF again this year.

The big draw is the fact that technology continues to transform the retail industry in ways that every retailer understands conceptually – increasing smartphone penetration rates equal mobile opportunity – even if the strategies to capitalize on the trend are still evolving. So they come to NRF to hear and see what’s next from leading technology firms who are striving to invent retail’s omni-channel future. The solutions presented by exhibitors tend to fall into broad classifications that are designed to: enhance the store experience for shoppers, enable a seamless omni-channel experience, improve the productivity of the selling space, capitalizes on the mobile revolution, improve the accuracy and speed of headquarter level decision-making and simplify life for store level associates.

Mobile dominated many of the conversations. Mobile coupons, mobile checkout, mobile commerce. NCR was among those touting a mobile shopper solution that transforms smartphones into scanning devices. Consumers scan items as they put them in their cart and simply display a QR code at the completion of their store visit to initiate the payment process.

Motorola introduced a digital fitting room assistant that leverages mobile technology to help store associates better serve customers. Shoppers enter a fitting room because they want to buy something and Motorola’s fitting room tablet allows shopper to, among other things, summon a store associate if they need a different size.

Catalina Marketing, long known for its ability to provide shoppers with personalized offers at the point of sale, has extended that capability to mobile devices. The company’s new mobile solution means retailers can now engage shoppers with targeted offers in store in addition to online and at checkout.

Intel showcased a robot called AndyVision developed in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University that helps retailers ensure planogram integrity. Retailers and their trading partners invest considerable time and energy in the development of product assortments, but all that work goes out the window if store shelves are not set properly. The AndyVision robot can roam the store overnight and capture images of shelves to identify compliance exceptions.

While mobile self-checkout is a hot trend, conventional point-of-sale systems continue to advance. Readers are now so fast and able to decipher all but the most highly mutilated of bar codes that a store employee practically has to cover the code with their hand for it not to be read by advanced scanners.

Electronic shelf labels may finally gain traction in the U.S. thanks to reduced costs and vastly improved appearance. Early generation labels looked like small LED calculators affixed to store shelves; however, a new ESL from Pricer has the same type of paper-like display that contributed to the popularity of Amazon.com’s Kindle device.

Tradestone Software, a provider of purchase lifecycle management software, has created a new platform called Bamboo Rose. It functions as a digital marketplace where retailers and suppliers can connect with one another in an efficient manner. While the focus of Tradestone is about streamlining the buying process, Bamboo Rose is all about restoring the sense of discovery to the process and aims to unleash the creativity of merchandising organizations.

This is just a fraction of what was offered at NRF. Retailers, be they merchants, operators or marketers, have never had so many powerful technological toys from which to choose. The biggest challenge is executing against the increasingly complex strategies that are enabled by the exponential expansion of new technological capabilities.</