Insights from NRF's Big Show: Key retail tech trends to watch for in 2018

Insights from NRF's Big Show: Key retail tech trends to watch for in 2018

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By Matt Sebek, vice president of digital, World Wide Technology Asynchrony Labs

If 2017 was the year of the so-called "“Retail Apocalypse," then 2018 may well become the year of the Retail Renaissance. Following last month's National Retail Federation (NRF) tradeshow, "The Big Show"— which helps to serve as a barometer for where the industry is headed — here are several key retail technology trends to watch for in 2018.

Retail is not dead, it is going through a rebirth

The death of retail that many industry experts predicted for 2017 never happened. The retail industry reported its best holiday season in seven years and the industry is expected to grow 4 percent in 2018. Not exactly patterns of an industry that many describe as on life support. Retail is certainly changing — but not dying. Sales are moving online and customer expectations in-store are higher than ever. In order to succeed, retailers will need to carefully consider the technology solutions that will help keep them relevant and competitive in the future. For some retailers, this will require them to reinvent themselves, and embrace new possibilities they hadn't before considered.

Tags, tags everywhere

The phrase "everything is a sensor" became cliché in 2015, but it's exponentially true this year. RFID is making a massive resurgence as retailers attempt to tag and monitor products from logistics to transaction — allowing them to be more intelligent and efficient with a dynamic inventory that is continually updated, while also offering frictionless "scan and go" capabilities at the point of sale.

With Amazon's automated grocery store, Amazon Go, launching recently in Seattle using only scan-and-go capabilities, more retailers will be experimenting with scan and go this year, enabling customers to skip the long line at the cash register, complete the purchase themselves with their mobile app and then just walk out the door. The technology also allows consumers to keep track of spending throughout the shopping trip if they wish, just as they can do with a virtual shopping cart online.

Frictionless = complexity

Simply put, if retailers want to compete with Amazon, their shopping experience has to be at least as convenient as Amazon's. This convenience needs to extend from a smooth and fast point of sale, to a user-friendly mobile app, to the ability — and the endless, dynamic inventory — to ship any item to a customer's home in two days if it is out of stock in the store. However, for brands to truly pull off frictionless shopping, it takes a cornucopia of disparate partners/products — meaning, points of failure have increased significantly. For example, scan-and-go capabilities that forgo a traditional point of sale require RFID tags, labels, sensors, IP-based cameras, wireless network, data storage, location analytics, etc. — increasing the chances of having something go wrong. And if any one of those technology touch points fail, transactions and loyalty is lost immediately. All the hard work in getting customers to step foot in the brick-and-mortar store or surf the retailer's website is lost. Thus, brands require an end-to-end integrator now, more than ever before.

But what about the employees?

For the last five years, brands have doubled-down on the customer experience. Leading the pack in digital innovation has become the new retail land grab. However, it's created significant disparities between customers walking into a store ... and the people working there. Brands can differentiate themselves in traditional brick-and-mortars by providing delightful, human experiences that consumers simply cannot find online — and that begins with providing employees with digital experiences that matter.

One example is a real-time store network dashboard that lets store managers know if there's a sudden influx of customers in, say, the paint department so that they can send knowledgeable employees to staff that area. Another example is having access to information about customers pre/during/post visit — such as knowing a customer's purchase history in order to anticipate products the customer might want or need in the future — or knowing a customer at a hardware store has walked through the door for the third time today and browsed certain aisles, and historically people in those situations will want to buy X, Y or Z, and could use advice from the employee on those products.

Voice assistance is another emerging technology that will enable employees to provide better customer service. We've already seen products such as Amazon's Alexa enable consumers to quickly order groceries from their kitchen counter. Now, this technology is moving to the business side and growing stronger in its artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities. In the near future, an employee in the shoe department might have an earpiece they talk into to ask their AI counterpart which shoes come in size seven narrow and are in stock, and the employee can quickly and seamlessly relay the information to the customer.

Strengthen your innovation muscle

We all know that technology is changing at warp speed. Advances in virtual reality enable customers to envision what a sofa would look like in their own home, and they also provide better training for store associates. Advances in proximity and location technologies allow customers to buy a product from home online and then drive to the store, where a friendly employee is waiting curbside with the product, ready to load the car.

How do retailers know which technology innovation will work best for their business, provide the most ROI and enable them to stay competitive? They can start by working with a technology partner that has deep knowledge of the latest retail products and services, experience from working with dozens of leading retailers, and that can provide valuable insights on how various solutions will integrate into an existing infrastructure. Retail is already undergoing a bit of a revival, and retailers that continue to experiment with new technologies will fuel the Retail Renaissance of 2018.

Topics: Assisted Selling, Automated Retail / Vending, Biometrics, Consumer Behavior, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Interactive / Touchscreen, Marketing, Omnichannel / Multichannel, Online Retailing, POS, Technology, Trends / Statistics

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