NRF 2019 shines spotlight on tech, but the future of retail is still TBD

The NRF show floor puts into perspective the vast arsenal of tools retailers now have at their disposal, but the actual future of retail is still up for interpretation.

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Image via NRF

Various versions of the so-called future of retail were on display this week at the National Retail Federation's annual conference in New York City, with new innovations meant to dazzle retailers into revamping their digital strategy and in-store technology. The NRF show floor puts into perspective the vast arsenal of tools retailers now have at their disposal to improve customer experiences, optimize data and leverage AI, but the actual future of retail is still up for interpretation. 

Everywhere you look, tech vendors are stocking their portfolios with retail-focused analytics and AI services, conversational chatbots, automation capabilities, IoT platforms, and even the occasional robot. 

Meanwhile, cloud players like Google, Microsoft and Amazon are touting the perks of their respective platforms and promising to support retailers on their digital transformation journeys. 

At NRF 2019, Samsung, Google and Microsoft highlighted new retail technologies including data-driven customer experience platforms, cloud-based data storage, and intelligent supply chain services. Amazon also showed up with Amazon Web Services, and invited attendees to check out its Boundless Store concept and "grab-n-go" smart cooler.

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But it's still up for debate exactly when and how these new technologies will show up in the average retail shop. 

Some studies suggest that adoption of new technologies is ramping up. According to a new report from IBM, 85 percent of retail companies surveyed plan to use intelligent automation for supply chain planning by 2021. Meanwhile, a study from Salesforce found that 16 percent of Cyber Week buyers engaged with AI-powered product recommendations as they shopped. Salesforce also said that its Marketing Cloud sent more than 88 billion emails, mobile SMS and push notifications throughout the holiday season. 

That said, the utopic vision for retail's technologically filled future is far from determined, according to Robert Hetu, VP analyst at research firm Gartner. "I don't think we see the future of retail yet, but I do think awareness of the need for a vision is pervasive," said Hetu. 

Instead, Hetu expects future retailers to base their digital and in-store technology strategies on two primary factors: the demands of the retailer's customer base, and the retailer's interest and willingness to implement disruptive retail technologies.

Nevertheless, NRF 2019 delivered a giant taste of what's to come in retail's future -- whenever that may be. Here's a extremely abridged list of some of the interesting retail tech that showcased at NRF:

  • Alibaba Group featured a booth highlighting technology the company developed for its Hema stores in China. Alibaba also showcased AI-driven robot waiters and a conveyor belt system for online order fulfillment. 
  • Seattle-based PiktorLabs debuted VERA, a digital personal shopping assistant that being piloted by Neiman Marcus. 
  • Pensa showed off its autonomous drone system that combines AI and drones to autonomously scan shelves and alert retailers to what inventory is in and out of stock. The system also relies on Intel architecture.
  • JDA Technologies showcased the Luminate Store Optimizer, a SaaS platform that aims to help retailers increase sales, margins and customer satisfaction by optimizing tasks.
  • Jabil displayed autonomous robots, electronic shelf labels, intelligent vending machines, point-of-sale systems and self-checkout kiosks that the company says are "redefining retail in the digital age".

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