Fascinating applications and technologies for retailers were again on show at the NRF (National Retail Federation) Big Show in the US – for example, high quality projected 3D images that create easy-to-manage store window displays, technology that reads your customers’ moods, robots to tell you when to order stock, and many more.

This year’s NRF attracted around 40 000 visitors of which 18 000 were retailers with 800 exhibitors showing off their products. It markets itself as the world’s largest retail conference and expo and, due to its size, is a good barometer of what is happening in the retail industry. The retail research company, RSR (Retail Systems Research), presented a webinar to share their impressions from the 2020 show.

“There tends to be two different shows: the bright shiny object shows and the let’s get real shows,” says Steve Rowen of RSR. “This year was definitely the latter.”

At last year’s show, exhibitors presented items and technologies that retailers might be able to see and use in the future, but this year they were more focused on execution and how to use technology in the retail space, RSR noticed. “We saw a lot more things that were practical.”

They didn’t necessarily see anything new, but they saw new applications of these things. “A lot of the things we saw in prior years are now becoming more and more real,” says Brian Kilcourse of RSR. “One of these is visual analytics. These have been around since the early 2000s, but they are now getting real and getting useful and finding practical use cases.”

Analytics and forecasting

“Insight is a really big detail to retailers,” says Kilcourse. “Business Intelligence and analytics is changing rapidly and it’s because of AI.”

One example is to understand cause and effect (Causal Analysis). “The point of this is to do an intervention midseason, for example if something is going on that can cause sales to drift (go south or go better than expected) the intervention will allow the retailer to reallocate stock based on activity, to adjust assortments and inventory and to return items to the warehouse that just aren’t selling.”

Visual analytics can help retailers to identify unsavoury customers who might have given problems in the past. Kilcourse gives the example of Facefirst, which uses consumer-grade cameras, so nothing fancy, and focuses on making sure that the same person can’t steal twice from a retailer by identifying the culprit if he returns to the store. It does this by storing the person’s image on a database, the retailer marks the person as a problem, and AI can identify him when he returns.

Visual analytics can also help identify products on the shelf.

Another important function for businesses is forecasting – and using data to find optimal solutions.

They give the example of a retailer that sends a lot of product direct to his customers and used demand forecasting to reduce the amount of duties he has to pay. He used the information to identify where the most demand came from and then – instead of shipping to the US, for example, and then to his consumers from a fulfilment centre – he noticed that he could fulfil from a trade-free zone near to where the products are made. “He wanted to avoid the tariff situation as well as some of the import fees that come with the traditional supply chain,” says Kilcourse. “The savings from this is significant enough to allow him to FedEx the goods to his customers directly from the fulfilment centre and still make money out of it.”

“Workforce management is big for all the right reasons,” says Rowen. “Employment levels where they are, wages where they are … this seems to be a very hot time for this space, to the point where there are a lot of wins being announced.” Some of these include task management and scheduling solutions.

There were several exhibitors who shared stories of where they are succeeding. “It would certainly appear that, if everyone in this space is doing as well as they are, this is a time where retailers are thinking very seriously who’s going to be working in their stores, what they’re going to be doing when they’re there, making sure that it’s all as optimised as possible.”

Order orchestration

The implementation of BOPIS (buy online and pick up in the store) and BORIS (buy online and return in the store) is seeing a lot of growth. “Two and a half years ago we were talking about BORIS and BOPIS. Now we have 4 000-5 000 customers using, breaking it, and needing better answers,” Manhattan Associates told RSR at the show (RSR also launched its first ever survey on the topic last week to find out more about retailers’ experiences with this).

“Order orchestration is really moving to the centre of selling environments and becoming very important” says Kilcourse. They saw several exhibitors trying to address this in interesting ways. They use order orchestration in conjunction with ordering systems, for example ecommerce or store channels, and fulfilment options that are pushing consumers towards the store, but offering other options. They use this orchestration component in the middle.

BORIS and BOPIS are about more than sending an order to a store and asking someone to fill it, he points out. “It’s about finding optimal locations for the inventory, finding available labour, dealing with all of the issues associated with shipping, etc.”

Track stock levels

“A lot of times we saw conflicting technologies to try to solve common issues, for example out of stock: is that going to be solved by robots or by cameras?” asks Rowen

Trax had several shelf solutions, one of which features cameras built into the shelves and that scan the opposite aisle. This is how they determine what is out of stock and what needs to be replenished. “The argument that they have is that this is a real-time solution, whereas a robot moves slowly if it’s running while customers are in store and will probably only scan the store a couple of times during the real work day. At night they can fly around as much as they want and don’t need to worry about safety issues.”

A mobile technology from arpalus uses iPads and visual recognition to manage inventory in the store. “It’s all about stock management, planogram compliance and control,” says Kilcourse. “A real-time dashboard makes sure that the store manager is keeping on top of the inventory.”

The system makes use of traffic light colour indicators (red, yellow and green) to give feedback to the manager and he can click on them to get more information or to order more product via the pop-up.

“The system is so simple that if you don’t have a planogram for your store, you simply go up to the display and take a photo in the app.”

Consumer information

This year’s show featured way in which visual wizardry is finding real-use cases, says Rowen. Retailers can use these to learn more about the people who enter their store.

There is technology that is, for example, able to track where the joints on our bodies connect and thus how they’re moving, showing how people interact with the products.

It can also read information such as their mood, age, height, etc.

Cameras can also be used to track your customers’ movement patterns in your store, and exhibitors such as Aura Vision are able to use your existing security cameras so retailers don’t need to get a whole new expensive set up – simply use the company’s software on your camera network. Additionally, their system also gives retailers information such as gender and age group.

Bluetooth can also be used to track the comings and goings in small areas, enabling a store to fine-tune its location-based marketing. Pointr creates a digital store blueprint, which a retail user can use to pin-point where customers are in store.

Alternative window dressing

Making the store front beautiful and eye-catching is a very labour-intensive process, Kilcourse points out. Exhibitors at the NRF Big Show again offered progressive, practical solutions to gain attention via your store fronts.

By treating the window with a type of film, Glass-Media can project high quality images onto the window. A retailer can then change the display as often as it wants.

They are also able to use AR technology to project a 3D image of a product, making it look like it’s an actual item in the window and not just an image.

Next year’s NRF Big Show takes place 17-19 January at the Javits Centre in Washington, US.