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Thinking a decade ahead: NRF Big Show 2020

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The National Retail Federation’s NRF Big Show 2020 showcased the technology that retailers need to think about today to stay ahead of the game in the future.

With more than 800 exhibitors and 38,000 attendees sprawled over 275,000 sq ft, the National Retail Federation’s NRF Big Show is the place to be to understand the current state of retail, and more importantly, where it is heading.

From robots, drones and in-store GPS to improve the omnichannel experience, through to sustainable on-demand manufacturing and self-checkout smart trolleys, every aspect of the retail journey was covered. 

Taking place at New York’s Javitz Center on 12-14 January, 2020’s conference and expo bought together retail’s biggest international players – such as department store Kohl’s, clothing hire site Rent the Runway, etailer and sportswear giant Nike – and the latest technology aimed at powering the industry’s success.

Though vast in its scale and packed in terms of its schedule, these are the key themes that unified this year’s event.

Self-service 2.0

“This holiday [season] was the first time that 51% of our sales were online,” revealed Neela Montgomery, CEO of American interiors giant Crate & Barrel during her keynote discussion. Though online is growing, she stressed that this does not mean retailers should shift their focus away from stores. “What [it] means is that we have to service our customer that comes to store… but we also have to service the customer that wants ultimate convenience, [that is] frictionless across all channels. And that’s really hard to do.”

As shoppers’ desire for speed and convenience grows, NRF’s exhibition halls hosted several businesses offering smart technology aimed at speeding up checkout procedures, in particular offering a new take on self-service.

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Showing in NRF’s Innovation Lab, which highlighted 50 international businesses that are new to market within the last two years, Israeli company Walk Out’s tech replaces manual barcode scanning with vision-based autonomous check out via shopping carts and trolleys. Created as a retrofit for old trolleys, the technology knows when an item is place in or removed. It means shoppers no longer need to scan items and can check out automatically via the trolley’s screen, which can also display promotional information.

Similar “smart carts” were also on show in the new business Start Up area from Caper, which was promoting a “grab and go” concept to speed up check out that also used image recognition cameras, while German company Rapitag exhibited its mobile self-check out “scan and go” technology, which uses self-opening security tags that enable customers to scan products, pay and remove security tags themselves.

Streamlining convenience

“If we think about how customers are shopping today, it’s so different from 10 years ago,”  said Michelle Gass, CEO of Kohl’s. “The best retailers are figuring out how to think about their stores and digital, and the interplay [between the two]. Channels should be complimentary and reinforcing each other.”

This omnichannel thinking plays into the convenience focus, and there were several innovative technology companies working to better connect digital with bricks and mortar.

Position Imaging’s iPickUp technology aims to finesse the “buy online, pick up in store” (BOPIS) click-and-collect option for customers, providing a speedy, self-service collection point that is easily integrated into stores. With no bulky lockers and no need for staff assistance, the units use laser guidance connected to a store’s established labelling to guide customers to their package. This can be installed in a room, behind a counter or even on the shop floor, speeding up click-and-collect services and sewing together online orders and in-store collection.

Drapers Digital Festival 2020

Connecting fashion’s future

Join the industry’s biggest gathering digital and ecommerce leaders at Drapers Digital Festival 2020. 

On 30 April Drapers Digital Festival will bring fashion’s digital and ecommerce community together to learn, celebrate, innovate and shape the future.

The festival offers a chance for the community to hear from pioneers of the digital economy, leading fashion retailers and tech giants about what’s driving the industry’s transformation, ideas to stimulate future trends and how to stay ahead of the game.

The full-day conference taking place at 133 Houndsditch, London includes three streams of unmissable cutting-edge content, live-judged awards and fringe events.

The festival culminates with glittering Drapers Digital Awards ceremony at the Grosvenor House, where we will celebrating the best of the best in ecommerce across the fashion industry with awards such as Best Digital RetailerBest Use of Technology in StoreDigital Rising Star and Team of the Year.




With clients including clothing etailers Everlane and Revolve, Happy Returns is a “reverse logistics” company that is also striving for convenience, simplifying online order returns that blends the physical and digital worlds. With its Return Bar initiative, shoppers can take any product, from any participating brand, to one of 700 return locations in stores across America.

Staff process the return and the item is aggregated into batch shipments, minimising hundreds of individual returns. Shoppers can return any item, anywhere, with no need for printed labels or even packaging. The aggregation of items also brings a more sustainable element to the returns process.

Shopping maps

Another trend at NRF that aimed to tie together different retail channels was technology that enables shoppers to digitally map, search and shop bricks-and-mortar stores as if they were using Google maps.

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Businesses such as SIRL and Intra Position exhibited indoor GPS systems that not only help customers to navigate shops, but also allow for upselling via push notifications to highlight discounts or deals based on shopper’s location in store, while feeding back data that helps retailers to understand how their customers physically shop and interact with product.

Staff productivity

“There’s no better investment you can make than the people in your team,” Walmart CEO John Furner told the audience at NRF. Certainly, while there were plenty of customer-facing tech innovations on show and discussions around delighting shoppers as part of retail’s experiential focus, another thread that permeated much of the event was a focus on the employee experience and staff productivity.

“Physical retail in this omnichannel environment is about efficiency and engagement,” added Mark Qualls, VP, US Operations at GameStop during his address. “How can we do more with less, with a more demanding customer base. For us it [is] about how to tap into our [store staff] to deliver a better experience.”

Alexa Geovanos, brand president, north and south America at Chloé, revealed that the French fashion house has already implemented technology to help – the Chloé Academy Tool – which aimed to “put all the information in the hands of [store staff]. Really giving them whatever tools we can to achieve and maximise [their roles].”

In terms of innovations at NRF, this resulted in technology that utilises the power of data and the convenience of digital capabilities to empower staff.

The Innovation Lab was home to Arcade, an app used by Under Armour, among others. It uses gamification to improve staff performance by turning KPIs into team-led motivational content, focusing on rewards and recognition, goals and games, and chat-based communication on mobile devices.

Beekeeper, which was found in the Start Up zone, similarly aims to improve productivity of staff by powering connectivity and communication across all work shifts, locations and languages. It can be particularly useful in connecting store staff with head office functions.

Intra Position drew attention to the capabilities of in-store GPS technology to help improve staff productivity, by quickly guiding staff around stores and helping with product picking.

Smart stock-take

Laborious tasks such as stock-taking and restocking were also being tackled by tech start-ups at NRF, aiming to further improve worker productivity.

Businesses such as CGI and Vayvar track the content of shelves and out-of-stock inventory, not only providing notifications to staff when replenishments are required, but also providing data analytics to optimise displays.

Wise Shelf similarly has sensors that sit on shelves within stores to help retailers keep track of exactly what stock is where, and prevents out-of-stock situations by alerting staff when stock levels change. Meanwhile, Snap 2 Insight uses image-recognition technology via photographs to analyse how products are performing on shelves and track sales driven by shelf and display execution

Pensa, on the other hand, uses autonomous self-guided drones that scan shelves, analysing and flagging stock conditions in store, while Gather uses drones and computer vision to take autonomous inventory checks of warehouses or distribution centres, speeding up the process to allow staff to focus on other tasks.

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Another crowd pleaser in the Innovation Lab, Right Hand Robotics presentation showed how its picking robot, which can lift items up to 2kg, can streamline order fulfilment to make selecting items in warehouses quicker and easier.

Sustainable futures

Andy Ruben, former chief sustainability officer at Walmart and now CEO and founder of Yerdle, which runs resale platforms for brands such as womenswear brand Eileen Fisher, declared at NRF that “sustainability is the topic of our time”, highlighting the push from “younger customers who shop differently to previous generations”.

Certainly, the topic of sustainability was a key theme of much of the conference – a topic that many businesses are addressing as imperative to future success.

“Circular business models used to be a competitive edge,” added Phil Graves, head of corporate development at Patagonia, “but going forward they are going to be a means for brands and retailers to survive.”

A standout in this area exhibiting was NAbld, a quick turn-around, on demand manufacturing pre-sale and production management tool. It allows brands to manufacture products on demand in six weeks or less via a network of no-minimum, tech-enabled manufacturers. It means brands can operate in an inventory-free world, creating product only when it is needed, therefore reducing risk and waste.

Augmented try-on

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have been buzzwords in the tech world for a while, but real-life retail applications are beginning to trickle into the market. A standout at this year’s NRF was Wannaby, which creates AR commerce experiences. Wannaby’s Wanna Kicks technology is a virtual shoe try-on app that provides an impressively realistic visual of customers trying on shoes via their phones.

Other businesses, including Tangiblee and Fingerfood also use AR to enable innovative visual and try-on services. The latter creates AR experiences of tents for outdoors brands that allow customers to experience the products without the time or space needed to set up numerous products in real life.

While much of this technology is not necessarily new, and the concept of robots and drones integrating into stores still feels futuristic, many of the businesses at NRF were showing real-life ways this tech can be integrated into retail. And to stay ahead of competitors, and more importantly, ahead of customer expectations, retailers need to keep up with technology.

“The best thing to do is try and imagine where the world will be in 10 years and start there [today],” said Ron Johnson, the CEO and co-founder of Enjoy, which provides in-person expert support when customers make tech purchases such as a new mobile phone. He is also former senior vice-president of retail operations at Apple, where he created and led the Apple Stores concept.

“[Apple] launched handheld check outs back in 2009,” he said. “You have to be a decade ahead to really be an innovator. [And] you need a team that embraces what is coming next.”

“If you wait for the mainstream it’s too late,” echoed Patrick Gauthier, vice-president of Amazon Pay during his talk. “The time is now, because the customer is telling us.”

Photographs by Jason Dixson Photography for the National Retail Federation

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