There are likely few people who spent four days, likely closer to five if you tallied the hours, talking to vendors, customers, analysts, consultants and potential clients as Ricardo Belmar did in early January while at the NRF “Big Show” held at the Javits Conference Center in New York City.
InfoVista’s senior director of worldwide enterprise product marketing likely didn’t want to say a word to anyone on his way home from the biggest U.S. retail conference, and couldn’t be blamed if seen sipping hot tea with lemon.
After all, there is a lot to talk about when it comes to retail, technology and what’s in play with customer experience. Therecord-breaking attendance at the annual NRF event clearly illustrated one truth is steadfast: the often-predicted “retail apocalypse” is not happening.
“I think I’m finally hearing more about how this whole retail apocalypse is an exaggeration, and we can all stop talking about it,” Belmar said during a quick lunch break at the conference.
“It’s more of a resetting of retail. It’s not that everything is going to blow up, it’s not the end of the world. The claim that stores are dead is not true,” he added, noting there is a lesson being learned by retailers coming out of the recession years.
“Some brands learned from that [recession] and some didn’t. In some ways, there is a perfect storm as a lot of big brands that are finally coming together on reality on a lot of bad decisions, and it’s finally caught up to them,” he said, noting the growth of restaurants and the fact that not every retail brand is shuttering storefronts. “Some brands are not closing stores, such as Costco. BJ’s is opening stores, as is Neiman Marcus.”
One big reason for the growth was the spectacular holiday sales season in late 2017, a trend Belmar expects to continue, especially as more retailers embrace and deploy innovative technology.
One of those technologies, augmented reality, is one Belmar predicts will take much deeper root this year. Virtual reality, in comparison, is still percolating on the back burner.
“There is lots of AR and VR, and enough people now experimenting with it, so something will come out of it, but AR more than VR, as it makes more sense,” he said, adding he’s not 100 percent convinced on where VR can be best used in the retail environment.
“There is more potential for the AR, though no one is clearly out front,” he said.
That may be because a few other trends are still front and center for retailers. For example, he said, the focus at the 2017 Big Show was on personalization and getting personalization right.
“That is still relevant to the consumer, and retailers are not doing it for the sake of doing it, but are leaning a bit more toward ‘how do I do it right and make it meaningful to my audience,'” he said.
Another big focus ahead is improving loyalty programs and strategy, and he expects that focus to play into one of the biggest trends hitting the retail segment — mobile payments.
“If anything is going to boost mobile payment adoption, it’s going to be loyalty recognition. That’s big,” he said, alluding to how Apple Pay is now providing seamless loyalty programs that don’t require the consumer to do anything except make the purchase.
Building loyalty, however, brings its own lessons, and retailers need to be listening to consumers — especially the millennial consumer — when it comes to loyalty program strategy, he explained.
During the NRF event, Belmar participated in a session featuring millennials sharing insight on what drives their loyalty as a consumer and what discourages their loyalty to a brand.
“It was all about the frequency of brand contact, and the consensus was like no more than once or twice a week [should a retailer reach out to a consumer]. Beyond that, it’s just noise to the consumer, and they’re not going to pay attention. They [millennials] said ‘just tell me about a huge sale and don’t waste my time with new products,'” said Belmar. The feedback from the panelists, he added, illustrates millennials are somewhat dictating what retailers should be personalizing.
The year ahead, according to Belmar, will be exciting on more than a few technology and networking fronts. While he’s “still waiting” for RFID to “take over,” and has seen good demos and use in stores, he noted that Wi-Fi is still a challenge in many retail environments, as is beacon technology management.
Another prime issue challenge for a good number of retailers is a pretty basic one — ensuring there’s a strong, stable, scalable network on which to run all the emerging tools, apps and strategies.
While many retailers have piloted and tested innovations in one or five stores, oftentimes scaling that innovation is nearly impossible due to legacy systems and network infrastructure.
“The one topic everyone forgets to cover is that all this stuff relies on other technology underneath, invisible, and no one thinks about it until after they’ve put in the new stuff or tried to put in the new stuff and then you have to figure out why it doesn’t work right,” said Belmar. “It ends up being a core infrastructure problem where sometimes it’s the servers or maybe it’s network connectivity,” he added.
“They’re introducing so many things, whereas in the past you only had a POS and now you have 10 different technologies vying for that same precious bandwidth. The only way you get the right customer experience, a consistent one, is ensuring you can deliver that experience,” he explained.
“It’s not just about ‘how do we deploy the new technology,’ but is everything else there going to work with it or work with what’s already in place. This may finally be the year where this message gets through.”
Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.