By Jeffrey Schwartz, Brainyard editor at large
⏰ 13-minute read
Got unmotivated employees, long checkout lines or slack in your supply chain? There’s an app for that.
Also in new retail technologies: Returns don’t need to be painful for you or your customers. In fact, the process could become a win/win/win.
Here’s how WalkOut, Increasingly, Finger Food and 10 more innovators are harnessing technology to level the retail playing field.
More than 40,000 retail insiders attended this year’s National Retail Federation Big Show to check out technologies that can deliver an edge over the competition — and help them challenge the 800-pound gorilla of online retail.
Couldn’t make it to New York? No worries. We scouted the sprawling NRF Innovation Lab for the latest in machine learning, robotics, omnichannel automation and more.
We found 13 intriguing companies working to transform retail and deliver a truly high-tech shopping experience. If you’ve got a store, consider these gizmos for your business’ shopping list.
1. Smart shelves
Who had it at NRF: Conex
If you’ve killed time at a duty-free shop in New York’s JFK Airport, you may have seen a smart shelf system from Conex, a division of DIAM international group, which develops visual merchandising and point-of-sale environments. At NRF, Conex demonstrated how it plans to overcome shortcomings of existing smart-shelf techs, like the cost and complexity of setup and integration, as well as fears of being limited to one vendor’s gear.
The smart shelving category ranges from small screens that attach to your existing fixtures to big, dazzling displays that draw in customers. Key benefits include the ability to easily update prices, push product information to customers and track what’s in stock using smart sensors that monitor weight or RFID tags and tie into an inventory control system.
Conex provides a full suite of smart-shelf hardware and software that’s customizable for retailers’ needs. The company also offers set-up and management services.
“It’s a plug-and-play system that’s now deployed in 35-plus countries,” said Jean Vieville, Conex’s product innovation manager.
In addition to its own embedded software, Conex has an ecosystem of hardware and software partners for more flexibility. Besides JFK, the shelves are deployed at Macy’s.
Conex's smart shelves feature dazzling displays meant to draw in customers.
Benefits: Data, data, data: What’s out of stock? What items do customers pick up and then discard? And has that box of crackers really been sitting there for six months?
Who uses it? Next-generation smart-shelf pilots are happening now in supermarket chains Hannaford and Kroger, the latter of which plans to offer smart coupons and make it easier to keep prices updated and monitor inventory. While competitor AWM focuses on ruggedized displays that attach to the edge of existing shelves, Conex also sees possibilities for luxury goods, for which customers want lots of information in real time. But experts question the ROI for retailers without big inventories, restocking challenges or the ability to mine the data generated by the system.
2. Gamification for employee engagement
Who had it at NRF: Arcade
Have you ever gone into a store and dealt with an employee who seemed … disinterested? Arcade thinks it has the answer.
“We make work really fun for the employee using gamification,” said Arcade co-founder and CEO David Cherrie. “Every day when the employee comes in, they have a way to win rewards and recognition. If they do really well with customer service, and if they help the store hit its goals, they get rewards.”
Cherrie says its gamification software improves performance by challenging employees through tournaments, races and marathons and insists Arcade is focused on recognizing employees for meeting KPIs, not cut-throat leaderboard positioning.
Arcade entices employees to play by handing out tokens that they can exchange for gift cards and other rewards. One Arcade customer employee saved up enough to go to Disney World, Cherrie said. Among its clients are Starbucks, Sprint, Verizon and Under Armour.
Arcade's software aims to incentivize high employee performance.
Benefits: Besides motivation, this software is helpful for training and communication. Companies are also using gamification for recruitment as well as retention.
Who uses it? Given the brutal competition for employees, this tech goes beyond retail. In a recent TalentLMS survey of almost 900 workers, 89% and 88% said gamification makes them feel more productive and happier, respectively, at work.
3. Autonomous checkout
Who had it at NRF: WalkOut
The checkout process can begin the moment a customer puts an item in her cart — even the rickety one with a glitchy wheel.
“We retrofit existing carts,” said WalkOut CEO Asaf Gedfalia. “It’s a very strong and powerful tool. When you’re done shopping, customers can just pay on the cart.”
How? A visual scanner and display unit mounts on the front of the cart and identifies every item added to the basket, and likewise, those the customer removed. WalkOut developed an algorithm that can identify SKUs, and retailers can use the visual display to present customized messages, such as promotional offers.
Walkout's carts come retrofitted with display screens.
Benefits: Autonomous checkout, also known as smart carts, are a win for customers who hate standing in line (that is, all of them) and for retailers, who can cut down on registers. While Amazon’s Go stores use overhead cameras to track purchases, systems like WalkOut’s are self-contained, with interactive displays.
Who uses it? As with smart shelves, grocers are early adopters, but experts expect uptake for a variety of larger-format retailers that can manage the back-end work needed for scan accuracy and justify the cost of the units. Currently, big-box stores such as Sam’s Club and BJ’s are piloting scanning apps and handheld scanners.
4. Simplified returns
Who had it at NRF: Happy Returns
Everyone dreads taking back those ugly (and not in a fun way) Christmas sweaters. That’s what drove David Sobie and Mark Geller, who helped develop the Return to Rack program at Nordstrom Rack, to launch Happy Returns. They now have 700 locations throughout the United States where customers can make in-person returns for retailers who use the service.
Bed Bath & Beyond and Paper Source are among the locations, said Henry Moses, the company’s director of retail partnerships, where customers can drop goods from brands that aren’t even sold there, like Cuts, Draper James and Rothy’s. Happy Returns provides reusable shipping boxes, making the process effortless for the receiving stores, which gain foot traffic.
“We also have online software that allows retailers to provide a return-and-exchange flow on their websites to kick the process off for their customers,” said Moses.
Making returns easy requires a mix of technology, including a mobile app and integrated dashboard for retailers, and smart logistics. The company offers self-service kiosks and a service to collect, inspect and ship goods as directed.
Happy Returns allows customers to drop off multiple brands' products in a single location.
Benefits: Customers gain the confidence to order knowing returns won’t be a hassle; drop locations gain foot traffic; and the retailer can consolidate all return software and services with one partner. It’s a win all-around.
Who uses it? Some of the biggest names in direct-to-consumer, like Rothy’s, Everlane and Draper James. Brick-and-mortar shops looking to increase foot traffic benefit from being drop locations.
5. AI-powered cross selling
Who had it at NRF: Increasingly
Retailers leave 10% of potential revenue on the table by not upselling mobile and online shoppers, says Increasingly CEO and co-founder Sri Sharma. His answer? Software that uses tag management, so it can integrate with any e-commerce platform, and adds AI and machine learning to analyze a customer’s past purchases, cart abandonment, suitable bundling combinations and behavioral patterns like impulse triggers and price sensitivity.
Then, based on what’s in the customer’s cart, Increasingly presents recommendations that actually appeal to the shopper.
“In marketing and in-store, 95% of retailers do not do this,” Sharma said.
Increasingly serves purchase recommendations to mobile shoppers.
Benefits: We’ve all encountered dumb cross-selling. The practice even appears in Dilbert strips. So there’s definitely room for improvement. And while we’re normally skeptical about claims of AI-driven insights, cross-selling based on big data sets is a legit use of the term.
Who uses it? Sharma says a company needs to sell at least 50 SKUs to see a benefit. Customers include Canon, Imomoko and Samsung.
6. Virtual and augmented reality
Who had it at NRF: Finger Food
Lululemon, a retailer that specializes in tech-enhanced athletic apparel, was looking to offer customized sports bras for runners that fit and respond to a woman’s unique breast movement. Enter Finger Food, a professional services firm that specializes in virtual and enhanced reality as well as robotics.
Lululemon customers wear sensors while running on the store’s treadmill. Using photogrammetry, the process of making physical measurements from a series of photographs, the solution gathers thousands of data points that are specific to the customer’s physique, said Nick Malaperiman, Finger Food’s director of marketing. The result? A recommendation for the perfect sports bra.
Finger Food partners with Lululemon to measure customers for sports bras.
Benefits: VR/AR is an intriguing tech for retailers, with a reasonable cost of entry. While photogrammetry might be out of reach, there are plenty of use cases for smaller outlets. Check out these 40 examples of AR in retail.
Who uses it? Activision, Lowe’s and Cirque du Soleil are among other Finger Foods clients. Competitor Spacee’s technology turns any glass surface into an interactive display and has been adopted by Men’s Wearhouse and Walmart.
7. Manufacturing on demand
Who had it at NRF: N.A.bld
N.A.bld (pronounced enabled) offers what it calls a “plug-and-play supply chain” for apparel designers. Since its founding in 2014, the company has worked with 13 manufacturers to bring more than 2,000 products to life.
“We enable inventory-free, or just-in-time, retailing,” said CEO Amanda Curtis. “It's completely transparent to customers and sustainable, and we look to bring products to market in an efficient time frame.”
The company’s technology lets designers digitize their designs with use of its materials library, a fabric inventory tool and pattern lists. Once an order is uploaded, clients receive real-time reports and updates.
N.A.bld manufactures clothing on-demand.
Benefits: A prototype of a new design can be produced quickly, before canary yellow goes back out of style, and inexpensively.
Who uses it? Manufacturing on demand isn’t just for clothing. Advances in additive technology mean designers and small retailers can print select goods as they’re ordered, greatly reducing inventory. Suppliers like Fictiv and Slant 3D make everything from toothbrushes to toys.
8. Apps for food producers
Who had it at NRF: Flashfood
Grocery stores discard tons of unsold food every day. Flashfood’s app provides customers notifications of markdowns, shows them exactly what’s on their local grocer’s discount rack and lets them pay for that half-price cake and pick it up when convenient.
Currently rolled out in Canada, Flashfood will launch in the United States this year, said founder and CEO Josh Domingues.
“Basically, we took the discount food rack and made it look sexy,” Domingues said.
The result? So far, Flashfood has kept over 5 million pounds of food out of landfills while saving more than 100,000 families millions of dollars on their groceries.
Flashfood's app connects grocery shoppers to soon-to-expire, discounted food.
Benefits: Apps like Food Cowboy and Food Rescue US work to connect grocers and restaurants with nonprofits to ensure food doesn’t go to waste. This model enables grocers to realize some revenue versus simply donating.
Who uses it? For now, the Canucks. U.S. grocery stores that want to get into the Flashfood partner network can contact the company here.
Who had it at NRF: Gather
No roundup of high-tech solutions for retailers would be complete without drones. Gather’s autonomous drone fleets take flight to provide inventory monitoring and asset tracking in warehouses, distribution centers, retail stores and yards. The drones gather and prepare images for warehouse management systems and generate exception reports, and the company says it can reduce pick times from three months to a week.
The drones spot their prey using images, then close in to read barcodes, detect SKUs and visually inspect items, letting retailers easily check inventory. The drones can even pick up and move items. Each is paired with a tablet.
Gather's drones help distribution centers stay organized.
Benefits: Gather drones can operate in adverse conditions, with temperatures as low as 14 degrees. They don’t require network connectivity, and unless you have real birds of prey in your warehouse, they’re not prone to downtime.
Who uses it? In-warehouse drones are popular, and Walgreen’s is (literally) piloting delivery drones. Photographers and real estate firms use drones to carry cameras, and one company suggests in-store drones to discreetly monitor customer behavior. Not creepy at all.
10. Recommendation engine
Who had it at NRF: FindMine
When Adidas was looking for a recommendation service that would automatically produce a complete outfit when a customer drops a shirt into his cart, the company connected with FindMine.
Eventually, Adidas built FindMine’s content creation engine into its “Complete the Look” recommendation capability to automate the process.
“FindMine is basically automating outfit recommendations by learning to mimic your merchandisers,” said FindMine VP of sales Lloyd Yoo.
And it's not restricted to just fashion.
“We can also help automate room recommendations for things like interior design and furniture. Or we can do this with beauty as well. But from fashion specifically, we are able to learn how a brand or retailer typically pairs things together from a merchandising perspective so that their brand aesthetic is maintained.”
FindMine showcased its new partnership with Looklet, which offers digital imaging technology that reduces the need to hire models and photographers to showcase every iteration of a brand’s apparel.
FindMine recommends entire outfits to online shoppers.
Benefits: Showing a complete outfit increases customer engagement and is a non-dumb way to cross-sell. Who has time to manually match kicks to a polo?
Who uses it? Besides Adidas, FindMine works with Callaway, Perry Ellis and Reebok. Competitor Syte.ai provides a similar service to Kohl’s and smaller fashion retailers.
11. Indoor GPS Search Engine
Who Had it at NRF: SIRL
Imagine walking into a grocery store and having a GPS app that could direct you to a specific item. SIRL, which stands for Search In Real Life, can track the location of an item within 12 inches.
The solution consists of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) stickers that function as beacons that a retailer can install on store shelves or walls. The stickers use batteries that last 3 to 5 years. The company offers a software development kit (SDK) that retailers can use with their store apps and a cloud-based platform that generates heat maps and reports on shopping patterns based on Bluetooth signals emitted from customers’ phones or smartwatches.
In addition to helping customers navigate stores, the analytics algorithm can correlate the amount of time shoppers look at a product to actual purchases and help retailers adjust pricing based on demand, explained CEO Michael Wang.
“If you have a product that’s selling really well, you can increase the price, or if people are looking at it but not purchasing it, you can offer promotions or lower the price,” Wang said.
Pricing for SIRL depends on the retailer’s size and number of stores, he added.
SIRL allows shoppers to GPS-search for products on a store's floor map.
Benefits: The technology helps customers find what they’re looking for from within a store’s app. It also lets managers see how shoppers are engaging with products and adjust pricing based on demand. or lack thereof.
Who uses it? So far, SIRL’s only named customer is a local New York City grocery chain called Westside Market.
12. Projected augmented reality
Who Had it at NRF: Glass-Media
Augmented reality is a great way to make storefronts and mannequins stand out. Glass-Media offers a relatively new twist on AR that will give a digital dimension to clothing, jewelry and other products without requiring prospective customers to wear 3-D headsets or glasses.
Glass-Media’s technology, introduced about two years ago, projects digital overlays to enhance actual products. Using its sprayable liquid crystal to create a projection map, Glass-Media showcased how a pair of denim jeans will fade over time.
One retailer that uses Glass Media’s digital storefront has seen a 10% increase in foot traffic, according to founder and CEO Daniel Black.
“It provides visual storytelling,” he said. “Really, it’s like digital signage on steroids.”
Black said the technology is affordable for lesser-known brands as well. It’s priced based on how long the customer decides to use the technology. Installations range between $5,000 and $20,000, but the company will provide zero-down funding for as low as $250 per month, Black said.
“We work with digitally native brands and pop-up shops,” he said. “We can slice and dice it in many different ways.”
Glass-Media projects digital overlays to show, for example, how jeans will fade over time.
Benefits: Makes products stand out, resulting in increased foot traffic into a store.
Who uses it? Retailers that have started using Glass-Media’s technology in some of their stores include AT&T, Estee Lauder, Fossil, Nordstrom Rack, Levi’s, H&M and Pier 1 Imports.
13. Autonomous Robots
Who Had it at NRF: Badger Technologies. Also, Zebra Technologies unveiled its intelligent automation system.
Marty was introduced to the world at last year’s NRF show when supermarket holding company Ahold agreed to deploy the tall bots in 500 of its Stop & Shop and Giant stores. Little-known Badger Technologies, originally incubated at printer maker Lexmark, was later purchased by Jabil, a $25 billion manufacturing service provider.
Last year, Marty got to work in stores throughout the Northeast, rolling up and down aisles looking for spills or breakage that could be a safety hazard. If Marty discovers a spill, he (she? it?) flash a red light to alert an employee to clean it up.
In another key capability the company is now rolling out, Marty will sense when products are not where they belong. “Stores are piloting it now,” said Eric Westerfield, a systems architect at Badger. That sharp googly eye for misplaced goods matters because it can be costly if a retailer has contractual arrangements with brands to position items in specific locations.
Marty’s sensors use LiDAR, the same technology used in autonomous cars.
Badger Technologies's robots monitor supermarket floors for spills.
Benefits: Detects hazardous situations in stores, can track inventory.
Who uses it? Ahold’s Stop & Shop and Giant supermarkets, Woolworths Supermarkets in Australia.
🙋♂️ Jeff Schwartz is Brainyard editor-at-large, covering technology and trends across different industry sectors. He has covered all aspects of technology and its impact on business for three decades as an editor and writer for a wide range of publications. Currently he’s a freelance writer. In addition to Brainyard, he contributes to Channel Futures and SD Times, among others.