A.I., loyalty, big data, predictive analytics and in-store tech showcased at the National Retail Federation (NRF) Retail’s BIG Show.
By David Hochman
The National Retail Federation (NRF) Retail’s BIG Show drew retailers to New York City from Jan. 15-17.
At last year’s show, the rise of artificial intelligence (A.I.) in retail was cited as one of the more exciting “emerging tech” story lines. This year, NRF’s BIG Show revealed that advancements in A.I. continue to make an impact in all areas of retail.
According to Gary Saarenvirta, CEO of Daisy Intelligence, a Toronto-based A.I. startup, “Our focus right now is helping retailers optimize merchandising, but in 2017 we can expect to see A.I. solutions deployed throughout the operation; impacting everything from demand forecasting, marketing, pricing, loyalty, and labor management. The bottom line with A.I. is early-adopter retailers in this space will be the ones who will really reap the rewards.”
Amongst the many apparel & mass – merchant brands, it was encouraging to see a leading c-store/fuel player on the agenda. Shell’s presentation, “Revolutionizing Retail Convenience: How Shell Uses Customer Insights to Accelerate Ahead of the Market,” emphasized the importance of understanding your customers and how their different needs intersect.
Afterwards, Carolyn Yapp, general manager, Global Customer Marketing Insights & Payment/Loyalty Programs at Shell, shared some additional thoughts with me.
“Shell sites see over 25 million customers daily, which generates an immense amount of data, which includes ‘voice of customer’ surveys, loyalty programs and the biggest source, which is transaction data,” she said. “We are trying to improve our customer understanding to better serve them by providing the products and amenities they are looking for.”
Dealing with data sets in such volumes obviously has its challenges, Yapp added. “To avoid being overwhelmed, it helps to have specific intent beforehand in order to determine which pieces of the data will be relevant, and, crucially, you need to deploy the right automation tools to ensure the collection data can be organized and analyzed.”
One recent finding, was that almost half of Shell’s customers are convenience retail-only, with around 35% fuel-only. This represented the inverse of many organizational assumptions.
Yapp also emphasized that loyalty programs are extremely valuable, making loyalty a “gold mine…as long as you have permission from the customer and the ability to use the data that is collected.”
Another trend that Shell is involved in is the “connected car” concept. Basically, every car nowadays rolls off the line with powerful on-board chips and sensors that collect real-time data on traffic, driver behavior, performance, etc. According to Yapp, Shell has built strong partnerships with automakers like BMW and mobile app publishers like Waze to help provide customers what they need when they need it.
I also attended the session “How Best in Class Retailers are Using Cutting-Edge Data to Drive Innovation,” moderated by Anthony Bruce, CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT). I then spoke briefly with Tony Pedraza, Walgreens manager for decision support analytics, about how Walgreens uses data analytics to determine where and when to add offerings, especially those that consumers wouldn’t expect to find at a drugstore, like sushi and high-end liquor.
“If any retailer, especially a c-store, wants to get crazy and innovative and experiment with new categories,” he said, “the only approach that makes sense is to deploy an analytics tool with rigorous test capabilities with the power to accurately measure the profit impact, as opposed to piloting something in one or two locations on an ad hoc basis and then trying to glean something useful from the results.”
Looking at the exhibitor floor, if all of the vendors, consultants and service providers moving fast to invest in cloud computing, mobile and Big Data/ predictive analytics constitute the miners in the retail ecosystem Gold Rush, then here are a couple of the “pick-and-shovel” plays that c-store leaders may find interesting.
Retailers are making big significant investments in tools used to process payments, collect data, prevent loss/shrink, and improve logistics. However, all this hardware is quite often not being stored and maintained properly by the store-level staff, which results in corrupted data collection, ultimately hobbling the march to return on investment (ROI).
Cincinnati-based Apex is hoping to take advantage of this emerging need in the market, and they showed me a sensor-based, specially-designed secured steel cabinet that tracks and dispenses the high-cost and scanners, tablets and radios used by by c-stores and grocery retail employees in increasingly mission-critical ways. Kevin Dugan, from the Apex PR team, told me that Walmart-owned ASDA, one of the top grocery and c-store chains in the UK, deploys these self-serve cabinets in all of its UK stores, and the company also mentioned several c-store and grocery pilot installations going on the North American market.
According to Brendan Witcher, principal analyst with Forrester Research, in-store technology is also “near the top of the list for retailers at this year’s show who are making commitments to digital investments.”
An interesting technology company in this space is Cloverleaf, which demo’d a device called shelfPoint, which is an LCD display with “sentiment analysis” tool that uses A.I. to read the faces of shoppers and recognizes their gender, age-range, race, and—this is where it gets interesting—the consumer’s emotional reaction to the brand’s logo on display at the time via their facial expressions. They then take the anonymized aggregate data and sell it back to the brands. According to Cloverleaf CEO Gordon Davidson, a number c-stores and supermarkets are looking at this technology, and the company recently completed a pilot with a Tier 1 grocery retailer in the northeast.
Dave Hochman, a frequent contributor to several publications, is the founder of DJH Marketing Communications, Inc., a PR, content and social media agency serving technology innovators in the mobile ecosystem, with a focus on those who are disrupting and driving the retail economy. Follow on Twitter @davehochman