The Annual Expedition— A Look at NRF’s Big Show

This year we heard that Big Data is Artificial Intelligence (AI) bot food (John Lawson, Colder Ice Media) and flows to Augmented & Virtual Reality and the Internet of Things (Jon Nordmark, iterate.ai).

Innovation in 2018 will be about retailer & solution provider collaboration, thinking about not only the new, but extending what’s in place today.

By Ed Collupy

It’s a journey that more convenience/petro retailers and service providers, large and small and from all corners of the U.S., are making each year. Off to the Big Show—the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) annual gathering of every retail segment imaginable —we go.

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NRF’s Big Show took place at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, Jan. 14-16. Throughout the show I ran into and saw people from Sheetz (large), Dash In (smaller), Gate (South), Quick Chek (Northeast), and Maverik (West), amongst others. They make the journey in the face of the retail industry wanting to know the secret to being convenient to their customers.

The Preview
Super Saturday, the best retail technology event of the year in my opinion, which supports the Retail Orphan Initiative (www.retailroi.org) brings a great mix of people together – technology leaders from retail companies, system solution providers, analysts/consultants and charities. It’s a unique event with a well-balanced agenda of what’s happening on the retail systems front and how RetailROI and their partner charities are helping thousands of orphans here in the U.S. and throughout the world through a variety of non-profit led organization’s projects. For the last few years I’ve been joined by other convenience retail technology experts Alvin Fortson (Impact 21) and Rich Schappert (Casey’s General Stores).

The event provides a sneak peak of what the big themes of the NRF Big Show will be. This year we heard that Big Data is Artificial Intelligence (AI) bot food (John Lawson, Colder Ice Media) and flows to Augmented & Virtual Reality and the Internet of Things (Jon Nordmark, iterate.ai), ideas are not going to happen with one person (Alita Harvey-Rodriguez , Milk It Academy), and convenience stores are a place to leverage their location for retailing fulfillment and delivery (Stacey Schulman, Intel). Schulman also talked about the anticipated growth to 1 million stores at one of China’s leading convenience retailers, JD.com, that will be equipped with many autonomous technologies.

The ‘Big’
Certainly, NRF’s Big Show draws the retail technology industry’s titans – Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Zebra Technologies and many more. Their approach to what they put in front of retailers is interesting – NCR took an approach of showcasing solutions that are available and ready for implementation while Intel demonstrated how many retailers are transforming the way they do business using solutions from emerging providers using Intel technologies to drive personalization and optimization.

But it’s not all about how big you are. There were solution and service providers of all sizes; some start-ups with big name retailers as customers but also start-up retailers aligned with both leading technology companies and start-ups just like them. Lolli and Pops (50 stores), CaliBurger (nine U.S. Stores), and Melissa Shoes (six stores) were part of the storytelling of personalizing a loyalty program, enabling self-ordering kiosks with AI, and creating new buying experiences using selfies.

The Clubhouse
As a kid my three-season clubhouse was underneath my back porch, it had a gated door and just enough headroom for me and my friends to dream and just have fun. The Innovation Lab at the NRF Clubhouse brought back memories of those days. Ideas were sparking as I walked through this innovation center filled with exciting solutions addressing trends focused on consumer awareness and engagement.

Bright and clear as day, changing projections, cloud & cellular-based window signs; a solution that extends your website or app with capabilities to answer customer questions in real-time, any time; and digital signage that brings an e-commerce experience into brick & mortar stores were just a few of the emerging yet real innovative solutions retailers interacted with. At the root of these conscious-building customer solutions are technologies to watch in 2018 – Gigabit LTE, Artificial Intelligence, and all things digital.

Interacting with your customers in new ways through computer vision will certainly be an evolving technology in 2018. Innovative retailers are teaming up with solution providers that will use facial analytics to offer personalized content based on demographics, recognize loyalty members as they enter the store or even spot a known shoplifter. Store shelves will get smarter too – consumer packaged goods companies are placing cameras on shelves to ensure their products are kept in stock through additional inventory management data points.

The Takeaways
As I reflect on what I saw and heard at the Big Show I walk away believing innovation in 2018 will be about retailer & solution provider collaboration, thinking about not only the new but extending what’s in place today, and transforming the in-store customer journey. Yet with partnering, convenience/petro retailers will need to fight for their place in line – other retail industry segments clearly are more top of mind with many of the solution providers. As I spoke to many people in leadership roles at solution providers few had thought through how their solutions could be put to use in convenience retailing.

There are new solutions that I believe can be applied to technologies that have been in place in convenience stores for years; why not use the video camera monitor at the entrance-ways of thousands of convenience stores to personalize the welcome? Transformation is the latest in buzzwords but it’s not a one-time event, it needs to be continuous and should cause retailers to quickly test and learn. Things are changing fast and those that implement systems that address the business first and seamlessly vs. addressing a checklist of features and functions will move the convenience needle further ahead on the customer journey.

Ed Collupy, executive consultant at W. Capra Consulting Group can be reached at ecollupy@wcapra.com and be sure to visit www.capraplus.com for more retail technology and business insights. Collupy has IT leadership and business team experience providing strategic, operational, and project leadership to retailers, emerging businesses, and technology companies.