Last week’s NRF Big Show at the Javits Center in New York City is the industry’s largest confab and its timing (as most retail fiscal years close) makes it a good prognosticator of which retail technologies companies will be investing in (or at least investigating) in the coming year. After talking to retailers, exhibitors and other solutions providers, I saw two recurring themes that have been years-long crusades:
- The quest to truly unify commerce. Truth be told, that’s just the latest synonym for omnichannel because that term is so loathed. But most exhibitors, whatever verbiage they chose, still emphasized the importance of inventory visibility across channels, empowering stores and associates to better server shoppers during stockouts and in-store mobility solutions. I get it. While many large retail attendees recognize the importance of these efforts, these solutions continue to be a years-long work in progress for most.
- Finding a balance between loyalty and improved profitability, especially in eCommerce. A few retailers mentioned to me they were investigating shipping clubs, subscription programs and same-day delivery, but others are holding firm in not losing money on shipping, even if it means slower orders. One vendor even said that it will release a feature in the coming months helping its retail customers expose more shipping options to shoppers, with the aim to show the lowest price (and service offering, not unlike Jet.com’s original intention). Fortunately, shipping wasn’t the only lever discussed. I was on a panel with some Samsung executives, including one who leads the 837 flagship store/experience center which sells nothing other than pastries and coffee but thrives as a customer lab (the marketing team is co-located in the same space), a help desk for Samsung products, an event space and a museum-like venue to demo the company’s entire consumer portfolio. If only every brand could be this creative.
Other discussions were more forward-looking:
- Voice commerce. There was an unbridled enthusiasm around voice commerce that worried me. I had flashbacks to discussions around Facebook stores and Apple Pay over the years and worry that retailers are being ensnared by the latest shiny object, especially as colleagues I’ve known for years as diehard skeptics of flashes-in-the-pan have bought into a world that their Baby Boomer audiences will one day buy clothes or furniture through Alexa. Stay tuned on this topic, because we’ll be writing lots more in 2018 but while consumers are setting alarms and listening to music on voice speakers, they are barely shopping yet.
- Blockchain. This is another topic that surfaced in a few conversations but the implications within retail are still unclear. Can it be used to better secure shopper data? Is encryption sufficient? Aren’t we better at detecting fraud through machine learning? When is blockchain really necessary or much more useful than just encryption? These were just a few of the questions I heard attendees ask. Here is some of Forrester’s perspective on the topic to date.
- Augmented reality. Yes, another bright, shiny object with little user adoption but that didn’t stop retailers from dreaming. Can’t it help improve sizing? Can it help overcome the need to touch and feel items? Apple showcased a few apps by its developers which were essentially alternative versions of the Warby Parker eyeglasses-on-your-face digital solution and the Amazon AR feature which takes relative size of an object into consideration, but there was little that was new or that promised to transform retail (especially given that shopper usage of AR in retail contexts is anemic).
For more on Forrester’s predictions for the 2018 retail industry, take a look at one of our recent reports. We look forward to tracking how these themes and others play out in the coming months. Be on the lookout for annual State of Retailing Online benchmark report which will be released shortly and which provides a pulse check on industry investments and business priorities.