Blog Series

NRF 2020: The year technology got practical

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
Dan Berthiaume profile picture
NRF Expo floor
Photo by Jason Dixson Photography

The most striking thing about the NRF 2020 Vision conference was the lack of striking things.

I have been attending the annual NRF “Big Show” conference on and off since the late 1990s, and the exhibit floor has always contained a lot of “gee whiz” solutions. However, this year’s technology demonstrations were not focused on cute androids or virtual reality simulations straight out of a science fiction film. 

Instead, 2020 marked the year that retail technology emerged as an everyday utility at the NRF conference. Retailers are still using technology solutions to do amazing things, but in ways that provide real business value rather than make your eyes pop wide. Here are three very practical tech trends I observed at NRF 2020.

Robots rise – quietly
As mentioned above, previous NRF conferences have featured robotic solutions such as “Pepper,” a smiley little mechanical guy straight out of the original “Battlestar Galatica,” designed to serve as the store associate of the future.

Store associates were a major topic of discussion on the show floor, but Pepper was not on display. What were featured in many booths were decidedly non-humanoid, functional robots which automate repetitive, manual tasks such as scanning shelves, detecting spillage and breakage, and moving products through the fulfillment process. The retail robot revolution will not be televised on the SciFi Channel.

RFID finds its use case
RFID has been rattling around retail for roughly 20 years. After a lot of initial hype and some well-publicized pilots and mandates, RFID faded into the background while gaining a reputation as a technology searching for a widespread use case.

However, a number of NRF 2020 vendors featured RFID-based inventory management solutions aimed at the apparel retail niche. Some real RFID traction is starting to occur among apparel/softlines retailers because so many vertical retailers in the space have adopted the technology. 

Apparel manufacturers with a strong direct-to-consumer component who control their own source-to-shelf supply chain have been able to achieve real ROI from RFID deployments. As a result, third-party apparel retailers are finding 50% or more of their inventory already equipped with RFID tags, making implementation of the technology much more cost-effective. Add in RFID’s ability to serve as a real-time product locator for omnichannel activities like ship-from-store and BOPIS, and you have yourself a genuine use case.

Store(d) value
Not only is the store apocalypse over, brick-and-mortar is now seen just as, and maybe even more, important than digital. Session speakers and booth representatives alike expounded on the extreme importance of the physical store to all retailers, even digital natives. What happened?

Simply put, retailers discovered the physical store offers a lot of advantages that an online storefront cannot match. The cost of distribution and fulfillment is much lower in-store than online, thanks to bulk shipments and consumers handling the ultra-expensive “last mile.” Human associates offer a level of personalization no AI-powered bot can match. The visceral experience of actually seeing and touching products drives more conversions and fewer returns.

The most successful retailers operate physical stores in tandem with their digital offerings. Brick-and-mortar stores can serve as cost-lowering pickup or fulfillment hubs for online orders. Associates equipped with customers’ digital browsing and order history can offer personalization beyond any previously attainable level. And as a branding and promotional tool, physical stores offer enormous qualitative benefits beyond hard ROI figures. 

What interesting technology trends did you see at NRF 2020? Let me know at [email protected].

More Blog Posts In This Series