NRF’s Big Show 2017, Day Two: Virtual Reality Is Creating New Opportunities for Retail

NEW YORK—On Monday, day two of the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, industry professionals touted embracing technologies that blend digital and physical environments to create personalized, and dramatically better, customer experiences.

Augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and wearable devices are the major advancements enabling companies to craft shopping experiences "like never before" and make "dramatic changes in the consumer experience," Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the NRF, told the 33,000 in attendance during his opening remarks.

Shay encouraged executives to consider some of the tools offered by the more than 500 software vendors gathered at the Javits Convention Center. "All of those solutions are being integrated into the vast ecosystem that we call the retail industry," Shay said. "It's true, I think it's likely, that the customers will never see these technological advances and solutions—they won't even know they're there. But they'll know if they aren't there, and they'll know from their experience. And that's why these solutions are as essential to your success as marketing and inventory."

During his morning keynote, Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, underscored Shay's point, stressing that companies should use connected devices to reinvent the their in-store and online experiences, continuously collect customer data, and act on the insights revealed to create highly individualized interactions for their customers. In doing so, they can create a "virtuous cycle," that allows them to easily repeat successful processes.

Competitive companies are able to "predict what customers want, what they need, what they see, and what is most important to them," Krzanich stressed. "Almost any behavior...can be predicted" from a large enough data set. "The question is how big is the data set and how accurate do you want to be?"

With advanced 3-D tools, companies can gather more data than ever before and use it to simulate in-store customer experiences that are altered depending on the behaviors users exhibit in these environments. One advantage of virtual shopping aisles, for instance, is that they allow retailers to place personalized offers in context and manifest customer preferences in a concrete way. A 3-D store shelf can adapt  to offer the items that make the most sense for each customer according to past purchases. And, using heatmaps that can be embedded inside such tools, companies can see what areas of a shelf have attracted the most eyeballs so that they can make logical adjustments.

Krzanich spotlighted the Chinese e-commerce outfit Alibaba, who in the 11 days leading up to Nov. 11—a promotional sales event known in China as "Singles Day"—offered virtual reality access to a brick-and-mortar shopping experience. The re-created store, which was located in New York City, attracted 8 million shoppers, who were able to use 3-D goggles attached to their phone to browse the environment, Krzanich said.  

Demonstrated onstage was InContext Solution's ShopperMX technology, which uses augmented reality to immerse buyers in similar experiences. A representative from the company showed how users could try out furniture in different colors and styles to see how the items fit with their living rooms; a recommendation engine could show them what additional  items might go well with the furniture and allow them to complete purchases from within the application.

"What if you had a robot that could go through the store and feed associates the data they needed?" Krzanich asked. Showcased was Simbe's "autonomous mobile robot" Tally, whose purpose is to automatically audit shelves and take stock of the items available in a store without interrupting the established routines of store associates or changing existing infrastructure. Intel's Recon smart glasses have been developed to help warehouse and distribution center workers automate routine tasks such as shipment verification.

Intel took the opportunity to show how all of these innovations could potentially be tied together in the form of its Responsive Retail Platform (RRP), which is designed to unite end-to-end retail in the enterprise and help companies get insight into their customers' activities in real time. The chip maker has partnered with JDA Software, RetailNext, and SAP to power it and has been beta-testing it with Levi Strauss & Co. The system has the potential to help companies save "billions of dollars," Krzanich said.

Carrie Ask, executive vice president of global retail at Levi Strauss & Co., says that despite digital disruption, customers are still visiting stores, and when they do, their intent to buy is stronger. Therefore, it’s important that customers not leave a store frustrated, feeling that their time and energy was wasted. "The opportunity and the stakes are higher now, not lower," Ask said. With Intel's platform, the team associates can be freed up from inventory management duties in order to better serve customers, she said.

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