Following his recent visit to the 2019 National Retail Federation's Big Show in NYC, Made to Engage's Commercial Director Stephen Leathem tells us about key tech trends that are redefining the future of retail. 

Technology was the centre of everything at NRF and in the time I spent meeting with software/hardware vendors, cloud technology providers, and also, listening to a range of keynote presentations and interviews, it became clear to me the direction the retail industry is heading and how digital technologies will affect all of us in the not so distant future (both as a supplier of tech into the industry, and as a consumer).

 

Frictionless Omnichannel Commerce 

Omnichannel commerce (the integrated approach to sales and marketing that gives shoppers a unified experience across online and offline channels) has been a retail industry ambition for a few years now, but as was highlighted at the event, the term 'omnichannel' will soon be retired, as the merging of the online/offline world in retail becomes the expected customer experience.

Up until recently the technical solutions required by a retail business to provide an omnichannel experience to its customers seemed an expensive and highly ambitious project to undertake.

With the latest e-commerce technologies provided by vendors, such as our partner Episerver, it has never been easier to provide your customers with an omnichannel experience, the key to this being not the technology stack and implementation but providing a customer experience, whether this be online or in store, that feels seamless and most importantly frictionless at the point of engagement (i.e. purchase, return, customer service).

 

Analytics to AI 

A recurring theme across presentations was that everyone in the industry has now clearly bought into the use of Artificial Intelligence to understand data more effectively, utilising machine learning algorithms to identify the key actionable insights required to deliver immediate impact to the business.

 

 

A great example of this was highlighted by fashion company Bestseller India. They're using AI to make informed decisions across their business in everything from online product recommendations which will suggest clothing items best suited to complete the look, to using AI and machine learning to predict which fashions will make up the next season based on previous seasons best-selling products, colours and styles.

Analytics is no longer something that is solely reserved for digital platforms but is now being utilised effectively in-store to identify customer footfall paths, browse times at shelves, and even identify returning customers as soon as they enter a physical store.

Combining online and in-store data within an analytics platform, and using AI and machine learning to interrogate this data to identify opportunities and create instant actionable insights, provides a major step forward in the world of retail especially when you consider the opportunity to personalise the in-store and online shopping experience uniquely for each customer at a one-to-one level.

Our client, Eason are working with us, to utilise AI to provide personalised product recommendations to their customers on their website and within email communications, with plans to extend this functionality into store POS in 2019.

They are also using customer analytics to understand how their users are interacting with the website with AI enabled personalisation, supplying product recommendations and re-engagement messaging across that customer’s online journey.


Cloud Services (Retail as a Service)

It was very hard to miss the promotion of the major Cloud Service Platforms in the form of Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and Amazon Web Services, with each of these vendors showcasing their latest innovative technologies that have been developed on their cloud platforms.

Our own partners, Episerver and Avensia had a booth on the Microsoft Azure stand, within which they showcased their interactive screens, integrating seamlessly with their Episerver powered omnichannel commerce solution.

Google and Microsoft also used the show as an opportunity to showcase their latest retail partnerships, with Google providing details of their tie-up with SAP to deliver cloud services. Microsoft also announced their new retail as a service (RaaS) partnership with supermarket chain Kroger. Microsoft and Kroger will utilise Kroger's front-end smart shelving solution and self-serve checkout tools, these applications are being further enhanced via integration with Microsoft's artificial intelligence and cloud infrastructure solutions.

It’s clear to see that these cloud vendors understand that retail is a key sector within which their AI and Cloud wares offering have an extremely open and receptive target audience and one which they will be looking to grow the adoption of these technologies in the coming years.

From an e-commerce platform perspective, it was also evident that Cloud Enabled Micro Service E-commerce platforms are now attracting serious mainstream attention. A range of new players in this modular platform sector are providing their solutions across Azure, AWS, and Google Cloud, and helping businesses move away from cumbersome, platforms into the cloud providing much more freedom and flexibility.

 

Experiential Commerce with AR/ VR

Augmented and Virtual Reality has always seemed to me to be an amazing technology opportunity, but with a use case which would be hard to execute to provide real-world value, especially in the retail sector. Google Glass and VR headsets have been around for quite a few years, but the thought of wearing a clunky headset to try on a virtual suit seemed to be something with a limited value outside of the entertainment and gaming industries.

At the event it felt like this technology has finally matured, due to technologies such as interactive mirrors and screens which allow you to augment fashion items such as sunglasses to your face, allowing you to try the look before purchase.

 

 

AR and VR technologies can be integrated and managed as part of an omnichannel e-commerce solution. A single platform such as Episerver can be used to centralise management of these content types and utilised to deliver interactive experiences within these interactive screen types. In a real-world example, Episerver and Avensia are already showcasing interactive mirror experiences in H&M’s flagship store in Times Square NY.

AR and VR are also being heavily tipped to disrupt the in-store management of retail. Interactive Cameras are now being deployed in physical stores to view stock levels on shelves and automatically request more products to replenish these areas of the store as they run low.

Further innovations in this space showcased the ability to create and customise your own clothing products such as T-shirts and shoes, 3D Models of High Value items such as Watches and Handbags which can be interacted with via hand gestures, along with face recognition technologies which allow for the applying of makeup to your face or the changing of the style and the colour of your hair in real-time.


Bridging The Online/Instore Divide

The IoT sector has been highly tipped to disrupt retail for the last few years. Amazon Go stores in the US already allow customers to walk in, pick up a book, and walk out whereupon payment is then taken via IoT sensors and digital wallets. These physical stores seemed to be the start of the real-world use case for these technologies, but to the everyday retailer on the high street who has much smaller R&D budgets than Amazon, this innovation felt like something that was only reserved for the retail giants.

 

At the NRF event, a range of technology vendors had taken the time to setup mock stores which allow a customer to scan an app on the way in, pick and choose a range of products which they could then add to their basket, and walk out of the store. Upon leaving the store payment is then automatically taken, and a push notification receipt is received by the purchaser.

During the event a technology vendor who supplied an IoT instore solution took the time to explain to me that the cost of the cameras and its associated technology has reached a cost of entry that is achievable, and a technology that all high street retail vendors should be considering. He was also quite confident in his prediction that it will be an everyday technology we all interact with within the next 2 years.

Connected mirrors and interactive vending machines utilising cameras and IoT technologies where also in abundance across the show. Various uses cases for each of technologies were presented such as browsing a product catalogue directly from your mobile phone that has connected to the in-store mirror to ordering a can of Coke via a QR code on the side of a vending machine.

 

Summing Up...

After our three days at the NRF show it’s become clear that the cutting edge retail technologies which we have all been evangelising about over the past few years are maturing and become mainstream. Within the retail industry, they are no longer regarded as solutions only accessible to the retail giants but instead have real-world use cases which can extract the best of the worlds of online and offline to deliver and transform retail for the better for innovative incumbents - even a chance to save the high street.

It has also confirmed that our investment in our partnerships with Microsoft, Avensia and Episerver is one which has left us best placed to deliver to our clients, a truly unique Omni Channel Experience. The platforms and the solutions which we are already enabling for ambitious brands such as Easons, Hornby Hobbies, and Henderson Food Service are already well on the way to ensuring these organisations are not left behind in the digital convergence of online and offline experiences.

We’re preparing to present the innovations and opportunities we have experienced at NRF 2019 to our customers over the coming weeks. At Made to Engage, we take pride in helping our customers deliver engaging and exciting solutions to their customer, and also ensuring that they continue to be innovators within the competitive retail sector.

To learn more about our expertise and key trends in digital commerce, reserve a seat at our commerce summit in partnership with Microsoft below.

 

Stephen Leathem
Stephen Leathem Commercial Director Stephen leads our commercial and customer success team, forming partnerships with brands and technology partners from around the world and building lasting customer relationships that enable us to continuously create digital success for each one.