In a city where there are endless entertainment options, it seemed as if all eyes in Manhattan, New York were upon the Javits Center this week to take in Retail’s Big Show. Tens of thousands of people gathered along the banks of the Hudson River for NRF 2019 and attendees certainly left with a holistic view of every aspect of the industry.

Every vendor brought a unique perspective, but a few themes became plainly evident over the course of the three-day expo.

Perhaps the biggest buzzword in the retail world over the last several years has been ‘experience’. Consensus on what the best approach to achieving the optimal shopping environment has yet to be agreed upon, but that certainly does not mean that different brands are not trying to become torch bearers.

“I would say that they [retailers] have not figured it out, right? But they are giving it the good college try,” Nick Schwarz, Director of Retail for Infinite Peripherals said. “Meaning there is a lot of testing going on, a lot of piloting, a lot of betas of these newer technologies. But I think if you talked to many of them they’ll tell you ‘we haven’t figured it out,’ they just know the focus is on that customer engaging experience.”

Regardless of how, most would agree that rethinking the in-store environment is important.

“Its really about building brand through making the customer feel engaged and valued,” Tim Raymond, Senior Manager at Compucom said. “So, a lot of this technology that is being introduced here and shown here is really about the customer and making them feel loyal to the brand through that really special customer engagement through the store.”

The balance of digital and physical shopping is something almost every retailer is dealing with and solutions to this question were brought forth by several B2B companies like Arm, Inc.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve seen in the last 12 months is the need to have a customer-centric experience that transitions from the digital world to the physical world. And so, the incorporation of IoT, of devices, and the need to bring all that data together for the customer-centric experience,” company Vice President of New Business Development Charlene Marini said.

Close to 40,000 attendees showed up at last year’s event, and NRF 2019 was packed from opening bell to closing remarks.

One way of accomplishing a better, or at least more engaging shopping experience is through the use of robotics. AI-driven devices were everywhere at this year’s show. Several exhibitors noted that the show felt equal parts retail convention and technology showcase.

“This is basically a robot convention,” Ian Wehrle of ProLingo said. “Its technology, technology, its all about artificial intelligence.”

One robotic assistant that was indicative of the show this year was TwentyBN’s ‘Millie’, an intelligent avatar that can actually see customers and interact with them. Brick-and-mortars can use Millie as an in-store greeter or floor assistant because it is human-like, but also a clear sign that technology is here to stay in retail.

Millie was one of several interactive robotic devices on display at NRF 2019 this week.

“It tries to be something in between the digital experience and the human experience because when you interact with Millie you will see she is quite the character,” TwentyBN AI Engineer Florian Letsch said.

Not every robotic device on display was designed to improve the customer experience directly, however. Robotics for warehouse and distribution centers generated considerable attention as well. Bossanova’s exhibit was consistently crowded because of its shelf-scanning robots that performs inventory checks throughout aisles of stores and grocers.

Bossanova Managing Director of Europe Red Mckay said that human interaction is still critical to people’s shopping experience considering the access everyone has to any retailer in the world with just the swipe of a thumb. Let robots take care of operational tasks, while humans take care of humans, he suggested.

“You need a human to interact with another human,” Mckay said. “Having a colleague that is freed up to purely serve you [a customer] or put that product back on shelf, that transforms retail.”

Wehrle may have summed it up best by saying, “It seems a lot of the conversation [at the show] is about allowing people to have the people experiences, allowing robots to take care of the business no one wants to take care of.”

Driving all these ideas and insights is data. More than any NRF in the past, statistics and dashboards were on display.

HappyOrNot Co-Founder Ville Levaniemi is excited to see the ways retailers are using data and customer feedback to directly inform business decisions.

“If something is starting to go wrong even at a certain point of the day, they [retailers] are going to catch up with it. ‘OK is there a pattern? What is starting to happen on Tuesday evenings? Did we hire someone, did we lose some employee?’,” he said.

Much of this data is gathered by sensors and facial recognition cameras as part of a way to personalize the shopping experience. This was another major theme of NRF 2019 as several retailers and technologies boasted smart shelves, vending machines and much more.

Caper’s smart shopping cart scans items as they enter the cart and its screen can make recommendations as to what might also compliment your latest purchase well.

Grocers, a sector historically slow to innovate, also had plenty to be enamored with. Caper’s smart shopping cart stood out in particular because it can be implemented into stores without having to fundamentally change the way brick-and-mortars flow.

Ultimately, whether it is through use of data, robots, or interactive displays, every retailer at NRF 2019 was focused on making the shopping experience better. With several maps laid out for what the future of physical retail might look like, time will tell which companies had the proper foresight. In the meantime, shoppers can be assured that every store from mom-and-pop shops to a big box department stores will look very different very soon.

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