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NRF16 Showed A Bright Retail Future, But How Do We Get There?

A little over a week ago I joined 30,000 visitors to the Javits center – an airplane hangar-esque trade show venue located on the far west side of Manhattan – for the annual National Retail Federation’s “Big Show.” This event, which according to the NRF has been held for over 100 years, is where companies that provide the infrastructure, services, and technology for retailers gather to showcase their shiny new products and talk up their vision of the future of the industry.

There is no way you can possibly see and absorb everything on offer at such an event – and if you try, you’ll probably collapse from exhaustion and sensory overload (which I almost did upon passing one booth decked out in a Wizard of Oz theme, complete with live Dorothy. It sticks in my head but for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about the company it belonged to, not even its name.) The NRF itself does a recap for those who want a comprehensive overview (skewed to the NRF’s constituents, of course).

However, by walking the expo floor and talking to people from a cross-section of the vendors present, I got a sense of some common themes: 

1. The need for retailers to offer omnichannel experiences, or risk falling behind the competition. Note that the term  in use was “omnichannel” not “multichannel,” which is somewhat confusing. When you dug into some of these offers, “omni” tended to just be connecting two channels: online (mobile or desktop) purchase with the physical store. Ok, so maybe three if you think of mobile and desktop as two different channels. But those are not all the channels that handle retail transactions – there’s also TV (QVC), as well as old-fashioned but still relevant print catalogs and sales via phone. I didn’t see or hear anything about these channels, even though there is evidence that they are far from extinct (see “Why the Print Catalog is Coming Back in Style,” Harvard Business Review, February 2015).

2. The need for retailers to offer personalized, relevant experiences. The ability to tailor offers to specific customer preferences and customer journeys was frequently touted as a must for retailers to master. Beacons in store and GPS outside it were technologies commonly involved in the ability to offer these experiences. Salesforce Retail, for example, spoke about how the shopper is in control in this new “me to B” world, in support of its Shopper Success Platform. NewStore, a start-up founded by former Demandware executives, showed how it enables “anywhere to anywhere”shopping, allowing a buyer to order something in-store and have it delivered to her when she is on the go, like at another store.

3. The suite vs separate debate refuses to go away. The largest established vendors – the premium sponsors with the snazzy multi-level booths like SAP/hybris, Oracle, and IBM – naturally pushed all-in-one suites, having acquired multiple solutions via acquisition over the last few years and now looking to make a return on those investments. In contrast, newer vendors with more specialized offers touted best of breed. Several of these type of vendors I spoke with explained their advantage with the fact that many retailers’ technology infrastructure in reality is a hodge-podge of systems, some home grown, others vendor-supplied, and all of different vintages.  having difficulty playing nicely with each other.

4. Built-in analytics as part of a solution’s value proposition.  IBM’s “Cognitive Era” became “Cognitive Commerce” at this show. Wipro demonstrated its In-Store Navigation Solution, integrated with IBM Watson in order to combine structured and unstructured data in order to optimize customer experience. On a shop floor, a customer can use their mobile device to shop, getting recommendations for colors, sizes, and other features based on her past purchases record.

In sum, lots of cool new tech. Lots of informative demos. Lots of jazzed new companies and invigorated established ones (like the newly independent  from eBay Magento team, able to long last demo Magento 2 Enterprise Edition after several years of delays).

But in my mind there was one massive thing missing that I didn’t hear about: how?

How can retailers get from their current, unichannel, unpersonalized state to the aspirational future? Will they need to restructure their organization, and in what ways? What kinds of new skills will its employees need to learn in order to adapt in this new world? The nature of demos is that the demonstrator plays the role of the user. At a retail-focused event, this user persona was often a shop assistant, store manager, buyer, or category manager. How easy will it be for people in these roles to learn how to use all these new systems? Will they need to learn new skills, new ways of interacting with one another and with customers? Will new roles be necessary? 

Maybe this is an unrealistic expectation given the format and tradition of a 100-year old event, but here’s was I really wanted to see: an actual shop assistant, or an actual store manager, doing their thing. Not a highly-trained engineer who had practiced and given the same spiel a hundred times already. 

This all crystallized for me at lunchtime, which presented a perfect example of the gap between where we are now and how we get to where the vendors think we need to be. After several hours of meetings the first full day, I needed to decompress and get something to eat before starting round two for the afternoon.

This is what I encountered:

NRF16 Lunchtime

     Line to pay for goods was separate and intersecting the line for ordering food.
     Line for ordering food blocked the self-serve beverage station.
     Not pictured: overflowing trash bins. Overwhelmed and harried staff. Empty shelves.

Now, this kind of scene is not uncommon at trade shows. But considering this trade show was all about RETAIL and the ways in which technology can improve customer’s retail experiences, the irony was inescapable.

My advice to retailers post-NRF16 considering investment in solutions that were on display there?

Ask the vendor how you can get from where you are to where they are.

Demand specific details on what you will need to adjust and change in your organization.

Finally, make sure they can explain how they will integrate with what you already have in place with what they are offering, not just in terms of technology, but in terms of the people and processes required to operate that technology.

In the meantime, we offer some tools that can help you get started with technology assessment and decision-making (free with registration), or contact us for further information or to speak with an experienced analyst about retail and e-commerce issues.


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