The Future of Retail is Phygital

The National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show in New York City is one of the largest retail conferences in North America. For 100 years, tens of thousands of service and software providers for the retail sector have gathered annually to compete for attention in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Being on the exhibition floor at NRF is a lot like being a consumer these days: you’re lured by flashy signs, extravagant displays, and the odd doughnut wall or candy jar—an old trade show trick to lure passers-by into your booth. I went into NRF 2020—my first one—looking to answer one question: how is technology transforming the way we buy and sell? To find out, I hit the show floor to look past the gimmicks and discover what’s really in store for retail in the next 20 years.

Enhancing the In-Store Experience

“It’s really all about that experience,” says Harry Patz, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Display Division, Samsung Electronics America. “We’ve got our in-window dual-sided displays where people can walk by your store on the outside and see some advertisements, but also customers inside can see specials and certain things,” he explains. Samsung’s booth at NRF was all about exhibiting the vibrancy of their LED technology, which can be used as traditional TVs or displays but also can serve as menus and video ads.

Samsung also honed in on the importance of using analytics to manage displays in real-time. Their Magic Info Software is powered by  IBM’s Watson. Through this platform, retailers can better understand audiences in real-time and use this information to target ads. For example,  if it’s a hot day in Miami, a retailer may want to change their signage to advertise a cold drink, but the same day could be cold in Fargo, North Dakota, and therefore signage in this location should advertise a hot drink.

One dominant theme that emerged from NRF this year was phygital retail. This was voiced by Antonio Squeo, the Chief Innovation Officer of Hevolus Innovation. “Phygital means the combination of physical and digital,” Squeo explains. Hevolus was demonstrating a mixed reality experience they created for Italian furniture company Natuzzi using Microsoft’s Hololens 2. Attendees were invited to slip on the headset to design a room in mixed reality by “picking up” furniture and moving it around. Using gesture control, you could also change the colour of an item of furniture, adding elements of fun and imagination to the shopping/staging experience. 

Augmented Retail

Other companies, including Facecake and Finger Food Advanced Technology Group, honed in on the retail use-case for augmented reality. Facecake showed off an AR try-on experience in collaboration with jewellery designer Kendra Scott. “Our vision for the future of retail is to democratize augmented reality and AI for all retailers and brands in-store, online, or through apps and advertising,” says Leigh Utterback, Executive Vice President of Facecake. At Facecake’s booth, you could try on items from Kendra Scott’s latest collection using a magic mirror which showed you what each piece of jewellery would look like on in real-time on the live video of the mirror.

Finger Food Advanced Technology Group displayed some of their interactive solutions for retailers, including a custom augmented reality experience created for outdoor brand MEC. Like many retailers today, MEC is challenged with limited physical space. Showroom floor space is especially challenging when you sell large products like snowboards and mountain bikes. For example, in the tents category, MEC was very successful at selling the tents they had on display, but these were only a tiny fraction of their actual inventory. Finger Food used photogramarty, a process and pipeline developed internally, to capture MEC’s assortment of tents and create a custom AR application so MEC’s clients could visualize all of their tents.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of companies investing in their own custom technology to give them a competitive edge in the marketplace,” says Graham Cunliffe, the Chief Strategy Officer of Finger Food Advanced Technology Group. “Companies are investing in interesting in-store experiences that bring their customers inside and then provide a seamless, frictionless experience, similar to what you’re seeing with online retailers,” he said.

Artificial Intelligence

Last but not least, artificial intelligence had an invisible yet pervasive presence at the show. AI companies at NRF claimed to be able to perform all kinds of tasks for retailers, from determining size and fit with a single photo to predicting consumer trends and behaviour. While AI is still finding its place in the retail value chain, it’s most promising in helping large companies manage and leverage all the data they have about their customer.

“When consumers show up—whether it’s in-store or on a website—we know who they are and we have the technology to curate the entire collection to their personal style and fit so they’re just seeing things that they love,” says William R. Adler, the CEO of True Fit. The Boston-based company helps online retailers personalize every touchpoint of the customer journey. “[This way] buying clothing and shoes that you love is as simple as finding movies and music you love,” says Adler.

For more on retail innovation from NRF 2020, watch my video above taking you inside the conference. 

Amanda Cosco
Amanda Cosco is a Fashion Futurist and the founder of Electric Runway

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