So, it turns out there is a future in retail. In fact, a whole lot of future, if the chatter at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show this week is any indication.
Now that we can all relax about that, the question, of course, is what kind of future. Wouldn’t you like to know? Turns out almost everybody would like to know. Enough so that the NRF crew closed the door on a full “The Store of the Future” presentation, leaving a throng disappointed. (Yeah, me.)
But that wasn’t the only place for future talk on Monday, the second day of the annual trade show at the Javits Center in New York. Like any smart industry, the retail industry is obsessed with the future. It’s coming fast, with the pace of change speeding up every year and the risk for those not able to keep up speeding up with it.
“We are in the middle of an unprecedented acceleration of technology innovation that’s on a logarithmic scale,” Scot Wingo of Channel Advisors, said to open a session encouraging retailers to embrace innovation.
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And no doubt many are embracing it, or want to, but strolling the two vast exhibition halls packed largely with technology-based solutions for everything from fetching clothes from the back room to predicting what sort of jelly a customer wants on what sort of bread, it’s easy to see why turning to tech is hard.
That said, based on my informal survey of the sessions and solutions brimming from the Javits Center, it wouldn’t be far off to say that the future is going to look like now, but more and better.
Retailers, says Marc Freed-Finnegan, who co-founded Index, a company that uses big data and machine learning to turn credit cards into loyalty cards, have no choice but to keep pressing forward on their tech initiatives — particularly those like his company’s, which help retailers understand customers.
“I really think what we are doing is inevitable,” Freed-Finnegan, the former product lead for Google Wallet, says of harnessing data to better understand what customers want. “There’s the art of retail and there is the science of retail. We can’t keep guessing.”
And so one reasonable vision of the future is a time when retailers will be doing all the things they’re trying to do today.
They will have data by the boatload — the hope being they will also have the tools and expertise to make sense of that data. They will have figured out how to capture key moments. Moments are very big this year.
In the future, retailers will have turned brick-and-mortar stores into powerful drivers of sales — both online and in the store. It will be omnichannel nirvana — and mercifully, since everyone will have figured out omnichannel, the word “omnichannel” will fade into obsolescence.
Oh, and it’s possible that the future of retail isn’t even coming to a store near you.
“The future of retailing is in China, not in the U.S.,” Richard Kelly, of the Fung Group, which works in China, told a standing-room-only crowd on hand to hear about “Explorium: Experimenting with the Future of Retail.”
He backpedaled during the Q and A, explaining that the future of retail is everywhere, but that China is going to be hot.
Of course, there is no guarantee that all this will all work out in the future, certainly not for everybody. The sad truth is, when the time comes that existing retailers have figured out some of these big challenges, they will be in existence for the very reason that they have figured them out. Those that haven’t figured them out, well, roadkill comes to mind. (Sorry to go all existential on you.)
Meantime, the work of defining the future goes on in some fairly interesting ways. Simeon Piasecki, who I met at IBM’s several-acre show booth, runs the Explorium, an experimental pop-up retail mall in Shanghai. The idea is to have a place where retailers can try new ideas, including the idea of expanding into China.
The Explorium, which is a project of the Fung Group, isn’t open to all shoppers, but instead accepts members who fit the demographics that make them high-value consumers. With the help of IBM, the shoppers’ movements and purchases are tracked as they browse through the mall, which includes tenants like Build-A-Bear, Stride Rite and Toys R Us.
“We’re kind of experimenting, ourselves, with the future of retail,” Piasecki says.
AT&T uses its own stores as testing grounds for ways to improve sales. Joshua Johnson, a senior marketing manager for AT&T told a crowd gathered to hear about “Capitalizing on Key Consumer Moments in Retail” that company data showed that customers felt that the time they had to wait for help at AT&T stores was twice as long as it should be.
In other words, those were not moments that those particular consumers were enjoying.
So AT&T worked with DirecTV, which it bought last year, to create engaging videos that customers could watch on in-store screens while they waited. Turns out, customers perceived their wait to be shorter than in the past, Johnson explained.
Other retailers, of course, have their own innovation labs where they can test their ideas — a subject I’ll write more about this later in the week.
Suffice it to say, this is an incredibly interesting time in the retail industry. Change is almost always messy, but it is also exhilarating. The unknown can be frightening, but it is also a blank slate upon which we can create a new reality.
For now, it seems, the only sure thing is that the future is coming. You can count on it.
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at email@example.com.