AI and IoT at NRF 2018: Revenge of the Brick & Mortar
I recently attended the 2018 NRF Big Show in New York and above the constant hum of tradeshow buzz, one unified voice stood out over all others this year: brick-and-mortar is back. And it’s armed with artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT. “There was never really a retail apocalypse,” Paul Chapuis, INK client and CEO of digital display company June20, had said to me. Having scrolled through our researched list of published commentary claiming the brick-and-mortar industry is experiencing a doomsday brought about by the prevalence of ecommerce and free shipping giants, Chapuis said the idea is ludicrous.
“The physical store has new challenges—yes, but people are still coming into the store. They’re still craving that tactile gratification of physically interacting with the products,” said Chapuis. “The challenge is using that in-store advantage and combining it with all the conveniences of online shopping to save the sale and forge the mutually beneficial relationship.” Others agree. The hottest demos I saw at NRF were those that used smart data, IoT, and AI to tackle making the in-store experience more convenient, personalized, and enjoyable than online experiences.
The dreaded check-out line
I took note of two technology companies tackling this antiquated experience. Xenia Retail, which has developed a cloud point-of-sale system, has turned people’s phones into a “remote control for the physical store,” according to the company. There’s no need for a shopping cart; shoppers simply put their phone in front of a product to reveal digital content like reviews or similar products. When they want to purchase the item, they add to their cart and a store employee immediately fulfills the order.
A China-based technology company called Yi Tunnel has turned the finicky self-check-out station into a smart, grandparent-proof experience. Using artificial intelligence-enhanced visual technology (AKA really smart cameras), shoppers can simply toss any piece of merchandise on the glass and the system immediately recognizes it. It even distinguishes between crumpled up blouses; different, but similar-looking apples; and chocolate candy bags that look identical. See the Diginomica video of the demo here.
The “How do I wear this?” conundrum
One of the most fascinating up-sell use cases I saw was from FindMine, a company that uses AI to help customers and store associates create complete outfits using merchandise across a retailer’s entire store. Its machine learning system gathers analytics and provides store associates with the highest-performing looks across the store so they can be sure to make the most appealing recommendations. And shoppers can see what their selection looks like via digital displays and magic mirrors. To FindMine, it’s not just about using AI because it’s cool. “AI is not the end in itself,” said co-founder and CEO Michelle Bacharach during her NRF panel on robotics and AI. “If you start there, you’ve already failed. It’s a means to an end to [your in-store problems].”
The complex products on display, and the uninformed staff
INK client June20 had its digital display solution as part of the Innovation Lab at NRF. June20’s tablet-and-rail system, appropriately named Converge, has figured out how to marry the tactile gratification of the in-store experience with the content-rich benefits of online shopping. Converge uses the best of IoT capabilities to allow retailers to showcase products that require a lot of education—like the smart home devices on this display at NRF—or customization—like the Tesla configuration on this display, as well. Shoppers simply walk up to the shelf and slide the tablet across the rail, stopping in front of different products or customization stations to immediately see all the rich product content they’d normally see online. Once a customer has made a choice or completed a customization, they simply pull out their phones and send the product information to their phone while they’re standing in the store. They have the choice to either purchase from their device or to take the info home with them to further consider. Even if they don’t buy right then, the retailer has all the data from the customer’s interaction with the display for retargeting.
It’s clear from my time at NRF that brick-and-mortar retail is fighting back, and even traditional retailers are stepping up to embrace these new technologies. I spoke with some of the most traditional retailers and brands touring the Innovation Lab, including a national deli meat brand, the most recognized international sports brand, and a well-known construction equipment retailer—and they’re all eager to see how their organizations can implement these technologies to improve the in-store experience. Cisco Systems’ retail industry senior advisor, Kathryn Howe, said it best in her panel discussion at NRF: “Digital transformation is our path forward in retail.” Embracing this digital change, Howe said, is what will ultimately empower retailers and store employees to create the experiences customers are looking for.
Did you attend NRF 2018? What stood out to you? We’d love to hear from you—give us a shout out at @heyINKco on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. If you’d like to see where else INKers have been popping up on the trade show circuit, check out our blogs about CES and the AI Summit.