​Here comes the future of retail (again) brought to you by tech vendors

Big data, Internet of things and AI could reinvent physical retail stores. So what's the hold-up?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

The future of retail is being pitched by technology vendors looking to overlay artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of things to brick-and-mortar outlets.

Here's the big question: Will this future of retail ever really arrive? At the National Retail Federation conference in New York, tech vendors are lining up to pitch execs. And why not? Retail is front and center when it comes to digital transformation. Consumer experience is everything. Retail provides an awesome Petri dish. Meanwhile, retailers may have some money to invest in tech.

Retailers in 2018--at least the ones that have survived--are in much better shape than they were exiting 2017. Inventory was well managed, and consumers were willing to spend. Sure, Amazon did great, but it didn't capture all the spending. Consider:

  • Kohl's said comparable store sales for November and December were up 6.9 percent from a year ago. Kevin Mansell, CEO of Kohl's, said holiday sales were consistently strong and digital demand "accelerated significantly." Kohl's upped its earnings outlook.
  • Macy's said its same store sales in November and December were up 1 percent. Macy's said it "had a solid holiday shopping season."
  • Mastercard SpendingPulse reported that retail holiday sales were up 4.9 percent. That growth was the best year-over-year increase since 2011 and an indication of consumer confidence.

Sure, there are the usual horror stories in retail (think Sears), but overall the death march is put on hold. Why not invest in tech?

Also: First, Amazon destroyed retail -- now, it's coming for Starbucks

Two years ago, omnichannel was everything. And some retailers (Best Buy is one shining example) delivered on their plans. Last year, Intel said it would invest in Internet of things technology for retail innovation.

This year, responsiveness is everything along with a dash of automation and anticipation of shopper needs. The general idea is that a top-notch experience for customers can serve as some Amazon defense.

Here's the catch. The pace that these technologies are adopted in a store near you is glacial. Some retailers can be excused due to debt loads, falling sales and that pesky death spiral. Healthy retailers talk more transformation than you see up front. Who remembers magic mirrors, emotion gauging cameras and video analytics? Aside from the video analytics and a few magic mirrors, I haven't seen much else from these snazzy innovations that hatched in 2014.

With that retail reality in mind, here are some of the more notable vision statements from tech vendors when it comes to transformation and one of the more key sectors in the U.S. economy.

Adobe said it is previewing research that will analyze live foot traffic in a store and will add features that will optimize images for different screens and add virtual reality tools without custom development. Adobe also added Hadoop connectors to Adobe Campaign.

Intel said retail will become responsive via sensors and the Internet of things. A year after its retail innovation fund launched, Intel said its IoT tools have been adopted in 60 stores. JD, a large online retailer in China, is a flagship customer. The idea is that some stores will be staff-free and meld online and physical retailing. G-Star, a Dutch retailer, was also mentioned as a customer. The other subtle hint from Intel: The U.S. may be a laggard in retail innovation.

Samsung outlined Connected Spaces, a pop-up shop that features retail technology, retail as a service and analytics in real-time. Samsung's instant pop-up store sits in its B2B unit and features its Nexshop, cloud digital store platform, as well as IoT tools. The idea is notable and follows up on a concept that Toyota pitched at CES.

Fujitsu built on its biometric customer authentication and RFID for fashion garments. Fujitsu has been advancing the technology for a few years. The general idea Fujitsu can meld its sensors as a front end to connect to its tablets and retail technology.

JDA Software is updating its software to use artificial intelligence to recommend floor plans, labor and products based on available space. Analytics, alerts and other information is delivered on mobile devices to help associates sell based on inventory.

Salesforce is focusing on marketing during shopping with integration with Instagram, AI and connections to its Commerce and Marketing Clouds. The Instagram effort is notable since it enables retailers to link product catalogs, posts and image recognition to the social network.

Oracle and FreedomPay, which provides secure commerce tools for lodging, gaming, retail, restaurants and hospitality outlets, is demonstrating integration for contactless payments at NRF.

The list could go on, but the biggest challenge for retail innovation is the gap between NRF showcase and actual implementation in the field.

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