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Three big takeaways from NRF's Big Show


As always, it seems to have blurred by before it even started, but NRF 2016 is over. As the retail industry collectively unpacks it bags, sorts through business cards and decompresses, I’d like to offer a few key trends I observed during my own three days of Big Show immersion.

Back to Basics

In my NRF preview column, I predicted that exhibitors would offer omnichannel solutions that included back-end alignment or integration. This was an understatement. The biggest Big Show trend by far was a coherent focus on retail fundamentals. Order management and fulfillment, inventory tracking, assortment planning and other “blocking and tackling” functions that have been pushed out of the spotlight in recent years are once again commanding industry attention.

This is not to say that retailers have abandoned their interest in providing a highly personalized, seamless customer experience in real time. Far from it. However, retailers are realizing that the same fundamental processes which supported the traditional customer experience are just as important to ensuring the modern omnichannel consumer is satisfied.

Making the (Consumer) Grade

Buoyed by the growth of cloud infrastructure and the widespread entrance of millennials into the workforce, retailers are introducing consumer-grade devices and user interfaces in the enterprise.

The easy accessibility of cloud-based solutions means retailers can run a wide variety of functions, including in-store POS and clienteling as well as warehouse and field tasks, on ordinary or slightly customized tablets and smartphones. This reduces the up-front cost associated with purchasing more specialized retail-specific devices, although they may require more maintenance and have a shorter lifespan.

In addition, mobile-centric millennial employees will have a much lower training threshold for using the same devices they rely on for everyday activities. Many retailers are extending this consumerized approach to user interfaces for employee devices. Employees are often now provided with more intuitive and visually-focused navigation, such as being sent photos of products rather than SKU numbers.

Some retailers are taking this idea a step further with a “Tinder-style” approach that lets employees swipe right or left on a mobile device to indicate whether a task has been completed.

Not the Year of IoT

Prior to the conference, many industry prognosticators predicted the Internet of Things, or IoT, would be the dominant theme of NRF 2016. NRF has had years where emerging technologies such as mobile or omnichannel were universal topics of discussion, and common wisdom held 2016 would go down as the year of IoT.

But it won’t. IoT was certainly easy to find on the exhibit floor, with numerous vendors featuring RFID tags, beacons and other “smart” connective solutions among their wares. But the IoT technology displayed at NRF mostly served as an enabler for inventory awareness, personalization, or other important aspects of the larger seamless shopping experience.

This actually bodes well for the long-term viability of IoT in retail. Rather than jumping on IoT as a buzzword, retailers and vendors are waiting for a use case (or cases) to fully develop so it can be properly leveraged. In all likelihood a future Big Show, maybe even NRF 2017, will go down as the “Year of IoT, but in a much more meaningful way.

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