6 Takeaways on the future of retail from the NRF ‘Big Show’

If CES is about an outlandish vision of the future of consumer technology, then the NRF 2020 retail “Big Show,” held in New York’s Javits Center this week, was about the wonderfully pragmatic problems of the retailers of today and how technology can solve them. After Vegas’s silliness, Manhattan’s down-to-earth bump is rather welcome.

The show this year felt more lively than ever. There was a creeping realization that not only is physical retail not dead, but that it still seems to be the best way to make money, that seemed to provide a palpable sense of hope. Between Casper’s S-1 filing, Overstock’s share price collapse, Wayfair’s struggles to make money and the thriving fortunes of many retailers once out of fashion, one sensed relief and confidence and a renewed sense of pride.

Here are some of the key takeaways.

Digitalization, not transformation

There is a strong sense that the modern world wasn’t really built for ecommerce. From parcel trucks that cause pollution and block sidewalks, to urban buildings that were never designed with large parcel rooms, to suburban dwellers’ inability to accept packages at home, to insane return rates wiping out profit margin, to the insane race to the bottom for faster free delivery, what we see in retail is less digital transformation and more adding digital stuff around the cracks. 

This is digitalization not transformation. Stands at NRF were dominated by digital paint and digital plumbing. Every surface from shelves to gondola ends—from payment terminals to kiosks, to signage—were huge, digital, colorful, high-resolution, connected, interactive and smart. In the back end, sensors watch our body language, gender, and record our movements, density, speed and intentions with robust, somewhat interlinked platforms designed to show what perhaps a good retailer has always instinctively known. The talk of holistic systems that can predict demand, automate ordering, track staffs movements, all evoke a moment in which physical retail isn’t being reimagined so much as augmented.

Blurred lines

Retail seems to be obsessed with where you showed interest, first searched, pressed the pay button, when in fact all they should most care about is how you get items. It’s only this that dictates whether they can make money. Mobile means the entire world is now a store, shelf space is infinitely long.

We’ve talked long about omnichannel retail, connected retail. Alibaba calls it “new retail” and perhaps now we can just call it retail in the modern age. Here customer journeys slip from online to offline without consideration. We don’t follow “purchase funnels.” We see stuff we like and buy it. Or think about it and buy it later. Journeys are complex, chaotic, irrational. Yet our entire industry is built around these lines—online and off, trade and consumer advertising, performance and brand—and we may have to realize these lines mean nothing when you can buy direct from an ad on Instagram, or create ad experiences for digital shelves.

The new spaces—the suggested products, the add entire recipe, the dynamic pricing based on demand, the new screens and the new tactics—span it all. 

Customer outsourcing

Retailers, it seems, have had enough of employing staff to spoil us. The promise and actual profitability of the awfully named BOPIS (Buy online, pick-up in store) was demonstrable by the relish in which the term is spread around the venue. (Fun fact: “bopis” is also the name of “a piquant Filipino dish of pork or beef lungs.”)

In all fairness, adland suffers by employing urban childless types who have no idea how much better it is to detour to a massive Walmart to collect things in five minutes than take an afternoon off work to wait for someone to come. Meanwhile self checkout tills, which both seem like fun and cheap labor we shouldn’t have to do, are all the rage. When someone can develop beautiful software for them I’ll be happy.  

Fragmentation

We are in the in-between things in so many ways. We’ve added new tech but never replaced the old. Today around the world I can pay with coins, notes, coupons, checks, chip and pin, swipe and sign, contactless cards, QR codes, mobile payments via NFC or with my voice, my fingerprint, and with my face. Right now inventory can be scanned and tracked by Barcode, QR code, RFID, or advanced image recognition from cameras on robots, shelf edges, drones or human beings. 

It’s a wonder anything ever works and this explains why it often doesn’t.

Dumb tech and basic gaps 

I love the energy, passion and determination of startups but somehow it means bad ideas refuse to die: Smart changing rooms, AR to try on makeup or glasses, chatbots. They all feel like cliché pushes to use technology for something—anything!—forgetting entirely the wonderful serendipity and humanity of shopping. Fashion becomes another realm where tech people, unhindered by a lack of knowledge of a sector, offer AI and algorithms to make a million apps that suggest us outfits with a genome-like data relationship set.

The human element

Retail in my mind has always been about two things: Great staff and doing the basics right.

Doing the basics right should mean well-designed websites on which you can see little videos of items to buy. The basics means being able to buy clothes that fit by destroying the concept of vanity sizing, which has wiped out virtually all online fashion profits for every single player. The basics done right would allow me to reorder the same jeans with a snap of a QR code, or check against counterfeiting or grey market imports by using RFID tags.

The basics done right would allow me to see if a product is in stock from my computer before setting out to a store. The basics done right would give retail staff greater visibility into their own shifts, allowing them swap and to feel valued and supported, part of a team. It would treat them with dignity and respect.

Data analytics doesn’t show how important a smile is, anticipatory computing can’t explain the bizarre wonderful success of Aldi’s middle aisle, or the buyer at Primark who bought thousands of animal onesies and made them a thing.

Retail has always been the wonderful intersection between the mysteries of human nature, the charisma of selling, the boring backbone of logistics, the leaps of faith and the power of imagination. I’m hoping we can all become better at using technology to augment us and not take over centuries of great judgment. 

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