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NRF16 – Retail’s BIG Show

posted: 28 January, 2016

With approximately 300 speakers and 35,000 attendees descending on New York City from 80 countries around the world, NRF16 is still indisputably Retail’s Big Show.

Having not attended the past two shows, I was pleasantly surprised by the extent technology dominated the conversation. From the speakers’ topics to the exhibitors on the expo floor, NRF was awash with evangelists preaching the gospel of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), interactive digital displays, 3D printing, facial recognition, Pepper (the first humanoid robot that reads human emotions), and much more besides. In short, the real action is at the nexus of retail and technology.

Lexmark Wizard of Oz

No Wizard Required

The rate of technology adoption is increasing, and for good reason too. As Janet Schijns, VP Marketing with Verizon Enterprise Solutions, stressed: “The lifespan for success is growing shorter. For example, the lifespan of the corporations that appeared on the S&P 500 in 1958 was 61 years. In 2012 it was 18 years. This means that 40% of the biggest players in most industries will be displaced before the end of the decade.”

It’s survival of the fittest, and technology is where competitive advantage can be found. However, all that glitters is not gold – a point made by Lexmark’s allegorical ‘Wizard of Oz’ style booth; technology is not magic. It doesn’t automatically bestow retailers with success… nor brains, heart, or courage for that matter!

So what exactly is ‘behind the curtain’? Join us on a short tour of the standout technologies and their applications showcased at NRF16 that we believe are likely to shape retail in the coming months and years…

1. Predictive Analytics

The most widespread advance came from the field of computer science. Retailers have never had so much data at their fingertips. Fortunately, we are now at the point where we can analyse, predict, and act upon these data, however the ability to glean usable insights will ultimately determine their future.

Pepper, the Humanoid Robot

Suits you, sir!

As Deborah Weinswig, Head Global Retail Technology for Fung Business Intelligence Centre, neatly summarised: “What predictive analytics is able to do for you is to find out where the low hanging fruit is, where the strongest correlations are that can be acted on for the least amount of effort.”

Whether it’s Amazon’s anticipatory shipping patent moving products to local hub in anticipation of purchase, eyeQ’s facial-recognition tools to schedule and target in-store digital advertising towards different demographics through the day, or Workplace Systems’ more accurate matching of staff schedules to consumer demand, predictive analytics is one of the key levers for retailers striving to deliver exceptional, personalised customer service.

Perhaps the idea of employing robotic sales assistants to recommend fashion and apparel that flatters a shopper’s unique body shape, characteristics, style, and purchase history isn’t quite so far-fetched after all…


Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is far from a new technology, though its new-found accessibility is. With representatives from Intel’s booth quoting the cost of RFID tags at as little as 4-6 cents each, RFID suddenly becomes feasible not only for lower-price apparel, but is now flowing out to health & beauty products and general merchandise.

Scala - Lift & Learn

Scala – Lift & Learn

For example, Su Doyle, North American Field Marketing at Checkpoint Systems, revealed some major grocers were now using RFID within the butchery secion to better manage the expiration/sell-by-date of products, with trials realising efficiencies in waste (-35%) labour costs (-50%), and sales (+7%) as items were more effectively cleared through promotions.

According to Marks & Spencer’s CTO, Matt Horwood, 98% of their general merchandise in the UK is now RFID-tagged for stock management reasons. They improve the retailer’s ability to locate items in store and throughout the supply chain, prompting Mr Horwood, to envision a future where robots scan stock levels on shelves and automatically refresh inventory levels.

3. Virtual Reality

TOMS VR Experience

Virtual Giving Trip

We live in the age of the consumer, and retailers need to explore every opportunity to raise the level of contextual, personalised experiences. VR is an innovative way for retailers to connect and build more meaningful relationships with customers by sharing an emotional, interactive journey.

Examples of this were to be found in the TOMS pop-up store, where viewers were invited to jump on-board a Giving Trip in Peru and see for yourself the upshots of their unique business model. Whereas Virgin Atlantic used the same principles to take customers on a guided tour of what it’s like to be in first-class on an actual flight – a bold step towards “try before you buy”.

Whilst the focus was very much on brand ‘experience’, its potential to bring the store to the consumer and build ‘endless aisle’ capabilities suggests 2016 is going to be a breakthrough year for VR.

To read more on how these technologies are are enhancing the retail experience check out our our NRF16 – NYC Store Tour, or to see all our photos from the show (and NYC) please visit ThisIsRetail on Pinterest.