Home Featured Top 5 Retail Tech. Trends @ NRF 2016

Top 5 Retail Tech. Trends @ NRF 2016

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Following her return from New York City, WhichPLM Reporter & top contributor, Kilara Le, lists the top 5 retail technology trends that emerged from this year’s better-than-ever National Retail Federation “Big Show”.

1. IOT Enabling Visibility

It won’t, or at least it shouldn’t, surprise you that the IoT (or the Internet of Things) – the emerging world of connected and interacting objects – was a huge buzzword at NRF’s 2016 Big Show. What is surprising, however, is the sheer level of excitement surrounding it and the collaboration, creative thinking and partnerships going into implementing these types of ideas.

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There is quite a bit going on in the IoT world of retail, but paramount is enabling visibility for management, merchandising, sales associates and, most importantly, the consumer. At NRF, there were multiple solutions for tracking items in store (or in any enclosed space really) using antennas and RFID tags on clothing or other objects. Some of these solutions can determine where RFID tagged items are, if, for example, they are left on the wrong table or shelved in the wrong area. There were mentions of mapping the journey of items through the store via RFID tag, and reports to identify items that are out of place along with combining this information with POS purchase information. These types of solutions would enable a better understanding of why and what people purchase and items they pick up while shopping.

Beacon tracking of customers using an app associated with a particular brand or retailer is hot. While these tracking solutions are not particularly new ideas they were widely talked about at the show, along with examples of stores who are implementing these types of technologies. Along with this is the connected dressing room that reads the RFID tags of the items you’ve brought in, and shows you product information on a touch screen – perhaps with color, available sizes, and customer reviews.  If the size you’ve taken is wrong or you want to try another color or fit, you can select it on screen and request it be brought to you by a sales associate. ‘People counting’ and facial recognition can also be built into these types of solutions as well as virtual try-on kiosks or ‘mirrors’ and scanners for size and fit prediction. The key to this is the IoT enhancing and enabling an easier, value-added, in-store* customer experience.

*Note that ‘in-store’ may be a faux pas, given point #2 below….

2. Omnichannel is THE Channel

Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of John Lewis Partnership, summed it up quite nicely in a presentation slide entitled, “Channel or Customer?” Yes, the answer is “customer”, by all and any means necessary (and by the way this is for tech. providers and retailers alike – more to come on this one in point 4 below).

Big retailers and brands who have split their channels (hence the omnichannel connectivity conundrum of years past) into eCommerce, brick and mortar, wholesale and perhaps catalog have, as of late, been spending an inordinate amount of cash (from one’s budget somewhere) to untangle the mess of connections between these previously ‘siloed’ sales channels and merge them into one overall view of sales. Now, all sales, ahem “channels”, must be geared toward enabling a unified and seamless customer experience, facilitating higher margins, and reducing stock-outs. Some retailers have been considering shifting their views of warehousing and direct-to-customer shipping and looking at these as a function of their brick and mortar stores and yet another way to capitalize on employee downtime and their convenient store locations.

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Value-added apps or those that provide a customized customer + brand experience are gaining lots of traction. Some offer lifestyle gains such as fitness and food intake tracking; others entice customers with incentives such as coupons or promotions when they are close to a store. Targeted recommendations can be sent based on past purchases, demographics or trending items. Consumers can be further incentivized with specific in-app offers to buy, buy, buy.

In addition, digital and physical touch points, views, purchases, returns, reviews, and try-ons are providing data points to be analyzed for the next season, promotion or next ‘open to buy’.

3. Big Data Leading Real-Time and Future Decisions

As I mentioned previously, the IoT tracking of both people and objects is ramping up. This includes logs of behavior history such as movement mapping of RFID tagged objects on the sales floor, or human navigation through a website or app.  However, all of this data is worthless without a way to make sense of it, unless of course you are a savant and these patterns just ‘leap out at you’.

Mapping one object or one person’s click history is easy to imagine, however the staggering number of potential touch points, objects and persons that a retailer could record in a day require the power of business intelligence tools (BI) and predictive analytics. There are a growing number of companies who create and deploy these seemingly magical algorithms and business intelligence cases to combine big data sets and find patterns that can be used to predict future behavior and explain past behavior.

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Along with connecting these to other business systems or portals in real time these software and statistical companies also seem to be starting to understand the importance of displaying these findings in a straightforward and often visual way, which is a big plus for those of us who are mainly visual learners in a highly visual and tactile industry.  In addition to visual tools the ability to ‘slice and dice’ these and customize the user experience with flexible data wrangling was mentioned to me more than once. Perhaps one of the most highlighted issues with collecting and storing all of this data (product, supplier, sales, shipping), i.e. the analysis of it, is getting easier to tap into with more user friendly tools.

4. Collaboration is Key to Success

Almost all of the software and hardware companies I spoke with emphasized their collaboration with customers to develop new features, products and essentially co-develop their solutions.  They’ve been sharing their roadmaps and vice versa – the industry seems more open in general to sharing their “wish lists” if they get the tool or feature they need, even if their competition gets it as well.

Many of them have also made strategic acquisitions, platform selections and partnerships rather than develop in-house, and acknowledge that finding the right talent can be difficult for new areas they want to expand into (i.e. retail store solutions or analytics). Collaboration brings fresh ideas and viewpoints and can be a valuable time saving option.  Time is, as they say, of the essence, as another trend is the consensus that development must happen very rapidly now in micro releases or adding in smaller features versus the longer ‘1 or 2 times a year’ releases of the past.

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The structure of software and platforms seems to be shifting as well. There is more interest in segmenting software features into app-like options that are more quickly deployable and give users more options as to which features they will utilize and which they will table for the time being. Apps allow for user or role-based access to a PLM system and also a more modern and intuitive user interface (UI).

The importance of user interface is starting to be held as a crucial part of customer service by major software companies selling their software to brands, retailers and manufacturers for their internal use.

5. Customer Experience and Elegant Human Interface 

Experience is the best teacher …and perhaps the best indicator of whether a customer will return and of what they tell their friends and colleagues about your company.

Retailers and brands are focusing on a more seamless retail buying experience and product delivery whichever way a customer chooses to interface with them.  From friendly humanoid robot assistants, facial recognition try-on ‘mirrors’, to size predictions, beacon tracking, and remote lockers for product purchase retrieval that unlock with a code sent to your phone, customers can more easily find, compare, purchase and receive products.

Software and hardware providers and partners are taking inspiration from companies such as Apple and Facebook, who have intuitive and simplified UI’s designed by experts in human behavior and usability. More and more of our daily interactions are on mobile devices, and software interfaces – be they retail or enterprise – have to mimic what people are accustomed to.

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PLM providers are looking at streamlining their offerings, reducing clicks to create and edit product information and adding in more visual elements to dashboards and search options. Apps to add functionality as needed to core software or user role specific mobile apps are giving product teams more choices on how and when they interact with their product information. Extending PLM and real time updating from other systems continues to be very important for maintaining up to date product data and providing feedback for last minute decision-making and next season’s development.

All in all, it seems that the product development and retail customer experiences and tools are becoming more …well, fashionable. It just goes to show that good design and interdisciplinary communication can create things that really do make our lives better and easier and even predict the future, which is looking pretty darn cool at the moment.

*Look out for Kilara’s full report on the 2016 show, as well as a collection of interviews conducted at NRF this year, due for publication in the coming weeks. 

Kilara Le A senior contributor to WhichPLM, Kilara Le has a background in design and textiles, and a passion for streamlining product development. She has worked with major international retailers, brands, and technology providers on improving business processes, technology implementation and software development. A seeker of elegant solutions to meet business goals and challenges, she is currently a freelance consultant with Walter Wilhelm Associates, and has previously worked with Gerber Technology, PTC, Dassault, and Lectra software.