NRF BIG Show 2019 Highlights

Retailers arrived in New York City to learn the latest trends and view cutting-edge products shaping the retail landscape in 2019.

By David Hochman

The NRF, “Retails BIG Show,” is known for showcasing the technologies that power the retail industry. The show floor, which basically covers an entire Manhattan city block, encompasses 700+ exhibitors. Those exhibitors include everyone from Microsoft, Oracle and IBM and established tech giants with multi-level displays to kitchen-table-sized booths housing brand-new, first-time exhibiting startups.

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It’s All About the People
While technology transformation is the main topic in 2019, as it has been for the past few decades, the story behind the transformation is, increasingly, about people. At the end of one session, “Pushing the boundaries of retail,” moderator Sarah Halzack, the retail columnist at Bloomberg Opinion, advised the audience that while drawing on next-generation technology and imaginative innovation can be a recipe for success, at the end of the day, tech “is only as good as the people who you have buying and running it.”

After another session, “Success stories: The best artificial intelligence for retail to drive results quickly,” I spoke with Guy Yehiav, CEO of Profitect, a prescriptive analytics company based in Massachusetts, which cites Walgreens as a client. Yehiav explained after the session that “one can have the greatest, most advanced retail tech in the world, but if the people who work at the companies you’re selling it to don’t see the value, or they can’t use it, it’s less then useless…because it simply won’t get adopted.”

People and tech is an important issue in the c-store space, where talent acquisition and high turnover remain significant challenges. According to statistics provided by representatives at the booth for Indeed, the job listing search engine, retail industry job growth is positive, however, employment at gas station/convenience store hybrids is basically flat, (down just 0.1% year-over-year in Q2 2018) while employment in traditional convenience stores actually declined (4.4% in Q2 2018) compared to a year before.

Buy Online Pickup In-Store (BOPIS) is an especially hot topic in retail, evidenced by the packed-to-capacity room in which Kent Savage, CEO of Apex Supply Chain Technologies, the world’s leading provider of automated dispensing systems, moderated a panel discussion titled “BOPIS 2.0: Transforming the store with self-serve automation.” One of the panelists, Edward Gleich, senior vice president, global marketing, Little Caesars, provided an overview of the pizza chain’s BOPIS rollout, the proprietary Pizza Portal. The first heated, self-service mobile order pickup station in the restaurant industry, Pizza Portal is an instructive example of BOPIS. Customers order and pay online or via the Little Caesars mobile app, then they get to bypass the counter and go directly to the Pizza Portal pickup where they input a three-digit pin or scan a QR code. Then, the door on the secured compartment opens, and they take their hot, fresh order.

Clearly, any c-store operation with prepared food on offer would benefit from taking a deeper look at a successful application of BOPIS from the QSR world.

Design and Deploy Technology
Another interesting session, “Systematic satisfaction! How Sheetz and Rituals routinely delight their customers,” provided conference attendees with an opportunity to hear from panelist Emily Sheetz, vice president, strategy development and execution at Sheetz, an organization well-known for being at the forefront when it comes to innovative technology. (Sheetz introduced touchscreen ordering to consumers in 1994.)

Sheetz, along with the IT consulting firm CGI, shared insights around “the data, technology and approaches they use to best understand and profitably serve their customers.” The Sheetz approach to innovative technology is, as Sheetz put it, to “put something that’s new and innovative out there, even something that may be imperfect, and let customers tell you where you can improve.”

Cashier-free Checkout
Spurred on by the Amazon Go checkout-free store launch, c-store friendly payment technologies attracted a fair amount of buzz. Digimarc showed off FutureProof Retail’s mobile line-free checkout app, offering in-store demos right around the corner from the Javits Center at New York City Grocer Fairway Market. One of the most well-attended sessions of the show, “From checkout-free to self-checkout – What you need to know about the latest convenience-based payment technologies,” highlighted some of the leading startups in the self-checkout category. One of those leading startups was Caper, showcasing the first AI-powered shopping cart, which instantly identifies items when they’re added to the shopper’s basket.

While c-store operators know that cash is going to still be around for quite a while, even the counting, reconciling and depositing of paper money is using advanced data analytics to digitally optimized cash handling to the fullest extent possible. Micki Seager, director of product marketing at Fiserv, the financial services technology company, demo’d a web portal solution that can provide an audit-level view showing the statuses of all deposits, balances, and cash pickups on any smart safe or cash recycler. Several major c-store chains are among Fiserv’s users.

Dave Hochman is a frequent contributor to several publications, is the founder of DJH Marketing Communications Inc., a PR and marketing consultancy with strong specialization in the retail economy. NRF 2018 marks his 15th year covering the event. Follow Dave on Twitter @davehochman