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Tech Bytes: NRF 2017: Evolve with disruptors to remain relevant


The trends featured at the annual NRF Convention & Expo never fail to get the tech juices flowing, and this year was no exception.

Sessions and the expo floor illustrated how retail technology has changed dramatically in a very short time. However, the event also relayed a sobering message: the industry needs to greatly evolve to keep up pace with customer expectations, and remain relevant in the long-term.

By leveraging disrupting concepts discussed at keynotes, sessions and vendor visits, retailers will be well-positioned for potential transformation.

Here are five technology trends that really stood out:

• Virtual reality (VR). Nothing illustrates digital disruption like VR. The wearable head gear, software and capabilities have come a long way — and retailers are noticing. Walgreens for example, is using VR to streamline planograms and improve its assortment planning. The video game-like process is enabling the chain to “test before they invest,” a move that eliminates physical store visits and executes plans in real-time, saving labor and capital, and speeding up time-to-market.

• Machine learning. In two years, there will be more data available than people in the entire human race, according to Shelley Bransten, senior VP, retail & consumer products industry solutions, Salesforce. This is the perfect reason why retailers need machine learning — it will the catalyst needed to expertly harness this swelling information. Machine learning already sits at the core of Kohl’s fulfillment operations. When a shopper adds an item to their online cart, complex algorithms determine the best, most efficient route to make that item available, whether it’s being delivered to the shopper’s home or picked up in their local store. The key: “enhance the shopper and associate’s experience,” said Ratnakar Lavu, Kohl’s chief technology officer.

• Customer-specific data. Delving further into big data, retailers will be ready to move the engagement needle toward more personal conversations. It’s the path Aldo took in its journey to create more custom experiences across stores, online and at its call centers. By tapping customer-specific information collected from every touchpoint, the shoe retailer has driven down its mass email volume by 40% and created more personalized messages — a move that has spiked revenue by 70%, according to Erwin Hinteregger, Aldo’s chief marketing officer.

• Robots. Whether they were welcoming incoming store shoppers, automating fulfillment, or assisting customers and associates in the buying experience, robots were well-represented at the convention — from JDA and Softbank’s Pepper, a robot that can sense when a shopper walks up, to “Tally,” a device powered by Intel that scans store aisles and alerts associates to out-of-stock merchandise. However, these shiny, yet innovative toys are not just about building excitement. They must address a business need —and do so consistently.

• More women in IT. There is no question the role of retail technology changes on a daily basis, and retailers aren’t ready. There is a shortage of software engineers overall, yet they are paramount to retail success. Target hopes to buck this trend by increasing the number of female engineers on its team, according to Mike McNamara, Target’s executive VP and chief information and digital officer. The chain has a lofty goal: to employ 50% female engineers. Breaking down the task, Target will first strive for 50% female engineers at the entry level — a move that will enable the chain to cultivate teams and skills sets, putting them on an advancement track.
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