On the Scene: NRF's Big Show

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In the age of the Selfridges and Marshall Fields a century ago, department stores were true innovators. Instead of keeping items behind counters, they let customers touch and engage with the merchandise, piped in air conditioning, and delighted with dazzling window displays and promotions. That same spirit of disruption in pursuit of delighting the customer was on display again this year at the National Retail Federation's Big Show in New York in mid-January.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty contextualized the wave of technological changes breaking on retailers' shores. Not only is there big data--a much-used term that Rometty elevated by calling it "the next generation's natural resource"--but there are technological shifts happening everywhere, from mobile to cognitive processing (IBM's Watson) to social media to the Internet of Things. "If we had one [new technology], it would spark a new era, but we have multiples," she stated.

In some cases, retailers are being encouraged to catch up to consumers. Brick-and-mortar retailers have long feared showrooming, but now they're being told to embrace the trend, making it easy for consumers to co-shop with their mobile devices. "Every retailer needs an in-store screens strategy," advised Jon Stine, Cisco's director of global retail practice. That means in-store Wi-Fi for mobile devices and special in-store online browsing experiences administered through kiosks or to mobile devices.

Skin care, beauty, and cosmetics brand Kiehl's showcased one way it's taking advantage of this consumer behavior. It successfully piloted a SnapTap program that enabled shoppers at a Dillard’s retail store to access additional product information or buy online by texting a number on their phones.

Once a customer is at the register, a retailer's attention could wane, but mobile payment company Square has found a work-around by reinventing the point-of-sale system. Its mobile- and tablet-compatible POS system allows small retailers to understand their customers better and receive funds seamlessly. But Square has larger aspirations.

Founder Jack Dorsey showed the additional personalization potential of the technology.There is email capture when a customer asks for a receipt, and downloading a Square app leads to more customized experiences. When a customer with a Square app enters a store, the merchant can see her purchasing history, greet her by name, and bring the neighborhood store feel through a digital app.

Mobile technology is also being targeted as an area of growth. Flash-sale site Gilt draws more than 40 percent of its revenue from mobile customers. Its customer base is comfortable shopping via mobile phones, and its limited-time offerings encourage mobile views. Gilt's vice president of online, mobile, and social marketing, Jason John, dismissed the myth that customers won't buy online, much less buy luxury goods. The most expensive purchase made with an iPhone on Gilt's site was a $29,603 Acura MDX automobile and Los Angeles travel package. On the iPad, one customer bought a $24,000

As tablets become more popular, mobile sales should lift. Data presented by Charles Nicholls, the founder of SeeWhy, shows a correlation between mobile conversions and larger screen sizes. While consumers with iPhones are often considered retail's darlings, people who have the Samsung Galaxy S4, an Android device, convert more than those with iPhones. Both are premium-priced devices, but the Galaxy S4 has a larger screen size, making it easier to shop online.

As retailers embrace emerging technologies, they're being encouraged to look back to those struggling behind or in need. The Big Show highlighted a number of socially responsible companies, such as Toms and The Life Is Good Company. Technology, too, comes into play when it comes to social responsibility. These retailers rely on their customers to build their brands through word of mouth, which today often takes place on social media. "We have entered a world where your customers coauthor your brand, and that's a good thing," observed the founder and CEO of The Life Is Good Company, Bert& Jacobs. Social media can help nurture and promote the good things your brand does. "If the community sees something authentic, they will build your business up," he suggested.

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