NRF 2016

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James Pepper describes some of the most exciting retail technology that came out of NRF 2016.

What the retail world doesn’t need to see is another cheap POS system offering little more than flashy disco lights – and it is pleasing to see the industry’s elite heed this advice at NRF 2016.

It's always an exciting time to gaze into the future of retail technology, this year’s show demonstrated the huge potential that lies in the mass of data that retailers are accumulating to gain a better understanding of customers.

Not only is this making them more efficient, but the wealth of technologies we witnessed are making stores part of the supply chain, which promises real gains.

But the undoubted focus was on mining the big data that businesses are obtaining from all channels including social media and footfall, enabling store operators to respond quickly to any trend, reaping the full rewards.

Here are some of the really significant developments that caught our eye at NRF 2016:

• IBM Watson: For those not in the know, this is a cognitive super computer system that learns from what has been a success and builds a high-powered database, enabling it to learn. While Watson has made great strides in fields such as healthcare, using such a system would be a major gain for retailers. They will be able to predict what is going to happen, integrating customer data, behavioural patterns and social media. This ability to merge online with bricks-and-mortar sales data could really be the missing piece of the jigsaw for retailers who have yet to implement omnichannel properly or that need to enhance their multichannel model.

No longer a pipe dream, retailers would have the ability to learn about trends, anticipate them and respond effectively. We know, for instance, that footfall and product sales can be impacted by as little as a plug on a reality TV show.

We already know the value of investing heavily in data analysis, allowing us greater efficiencies and giving us the ability to understand customers better.

If retailers are to capitalise on Watson at scale, it is important they ensure all of their systems – fully-functioning CCTV and RFID sensor systems to name a few – are working all of the time, so they do not miss out on any of these operational insights.

• Digimarc: This innovative company has technology which uses the cyan colour spectrum, instead of the barcode label, to enable an express checkout system. Traditional checkouts have a barcode system where the code has to be aligned with the scanner lens. Digimarc embeds a slight change in the cyan spectrum within the label so that the system recognises it far more quickly – meaning it is not necessary to line up the barcode. This is not only a faster system, it reduces the level of misreads. This is of definite benefit to convenience retail and where self-scanning is deployed.

Because the whole label is used for storing data, it is possible to have much more data in the barcode, including importantly, information that can be scanned by a smartphone, giving website links and product details.

This is aimed at owned-brand products where the retailers have more control over packaging and will ultimately enable retailers to see how and why the products are – hopefully – selling much more quickly.

• The practical Internet of Things: Another ground-breaking service lies in the evolution of scanners that can be voice-activated, allowing shoppers to talk into it at home and manage shopping lists that an online retailer can download in order to pack goods for home delivery or click and collect. The crucial difference we have seen is that it is not owned by any particular retailer, giving the customer the choice of where to shop, while streamlining the whole process.

The use of cognitive technology would also allow the system to learn from a customer’s shopping habits and suggest what needs to be bought. A big leap forward from the tedious process of online grocery shopping.

• Evolution of RFID: Radio Frequency Identification continues to advance and many practical uses were demonstrated. We met with a business called Mojix which has an RFID application that can track all products through a number of transmitters linked to their software. The practical uses of this technology include monitoring the movement of stock in real time so that if garments have been left in a fitting room, they can be put back on the shelves.  The store can be periodically scanned so that stock is located and placed where it belongs. Of course it also is an important advance in combating shoplifting.

Equally cheap NFC tags can be attached to items such as bottles of wine or champagne, allowing customers to download information to their phones, making a more informed purchase. It means store staff do not need to know everything about every product. Cleverly, such NFC chips then become the unique identifiers of the products once they have left the store, making registration with the manufacturer easy and opening the way to the customer enjoying related benefits such as maps if they have bought running shoes. Obviously, this gives the manufacturer a mass of data about how their products are used.

What can be of little doubt is customers are at the heart of retail technology and the innovative use of data will be at the heart of all advancements. We look forward to a front-row seat in what is to be another big year for our industry.