NRF 2018 Confirms: Retail is Transforming at Warp Speed

by Greg Griffiths
February 19, 2018

As expected, unified commerce was a dominant topic at NRF 2018 – and it went well beyond speculation. Retail leaders who attended gained a greater sense not only of the importance of a seamless omnichannel customer experience, but also of the approaches and technologies that make it achievable.

We also saw a highly enthusiastic turnout for the Exhibitor Big Ideas session titled “Retail is changing at warp-speed – accelerate the transformation of your business,” presented by Windstream, national retailer Zumiez, and retail management consulting firm and partner, BRP. For those who couldn’t make it, here are key takeaways regarding what lies ahead.

Curated shopping

The wealth of online choices facing consumers cries out for simplification, and curated shopping will be an important element. Consider Stitch Fix, which aims to re-invent shopping “the way women really want to shop.” The customer fills out a profile, picks a delivery date, and receives five clothing and accessory items matched to taste, budget, and lifestyle – then tries the items at home, buys what she wants, and returns the rest. Success for this model depends on high-performance data analytics and predictive technology that enable effective matching by an automated “stylist.”

Leveraging mobile

Retail has moved beyond viewing mobile as a distinct channel, as leading-edge brands pursue augmented reality (AR) apps that directly enhance “real world” shopping. Two great AR example are the Ikea Place app, which lets customers virtually place furniture in their homes, and Lowe’s Vision app, which customers use to create shopping lists and then easily locate items within a Lowe’s store – leveraging breakthrough technology from Apple and Google, respectively.

Shopping by voice

Amazon and Google are aggressively pursuing voice in consumer electronics with their Echo and Home devices. Both succeed in simplifying the shopping process, and consumers are responding enthusiastically. According to Adobe, 22% of owners of these devices now shop by voice, and voice-shopping sales doubled in 2017. With consumers adopting smart speaker devices in fast-growing numbers, we can expect shopping by voice to become a prominent component of unified commerce.

Self-driving cars and autonomous fulfillment

When most people think of self-driving cars, they envision people-movers. Not so with Amazon, which has mastered autonomous delivery of goods within warehouses – and now has an eye on deploying self-driving cars to deliver packages to shoppers’ doors. It amounts to using advanced technology to streamline the customer experience all the way to its conclusion. Amazon hasn’t formally announced plans yet, but if it all proves workable, others will surely follow, and self-driven fulfillment will take a major bite out of “snail mail” delivery.

You can see the possibilities when you combine the above takeaways. In the not too distant future I will be able to order a new shirt to go with my blue suit and my AI stylist bot picks it out and an autonomous vehicle delivers to my door.

Retail will thrive – and increasingly run on advanced networking

While some in the industry have worried that all of these changes point to “retail apocalypse,” what it really means is that retail is constantly improving through the realization of advances driven by the need to deliver a superior customer experience. That experience will increasingly depend on leveraging technology to unify  all channels, from browsing through fulfillment.

This will all depend on advanced networking, with far more traffic destined for the internet and public clouds. As it is, the network can either be a bottleneck for retailers or it can be the tool for this rapid retail transformation. T1s that were meant simply to provide internet connections through a centralized firewall won’t handle the coming retail bandwidth explosion, and centralized firewalls won’t be able to avoid congestion. Rapidly escalating requirements for bandwidth, security, and maximum up-time will increasingly drive retail traffic to networking designed and optimized for the cloud.

To dive further into what’s happening, please see the new 2018 POS/Customer Engagement Survey just released by BRP, our NRF Big Ideas co-presenter. It’s a fascinating look at how retailers are faring in their quest to ensure that the key pillars defining the required customer experience are in place to deliver unified commerce.