The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Left vs. Right Brained Thinking At The NRF Big Show


After every NRF Big Show event (held annually in NYC in January) we get asked, “So! What did you think of the event THIS year?” The nature of the question depends on who’s doing the asking. If for example the questioner is a long-time veteran of the retail industry, the question really is, “Has anything changed?” If the question comes from a solution provider, the question is, “How do we look compared to others?” But for the vast majority of people, the true question is, “What do I need to pay attention to in the coming months?”

So here are some answers:

(1) Yes.

(2) There was a lot of commonality in the solutions on display – solutions companies very clearly see the opportunities and are racing to beat the competition to market and achieve critical mass.

(3) Wow! Where do I begin?

“Where do I begin?” was definitely the question being addressed at NRF 2019.

NRF events tend to swing between “left brained” and “right brained” presentations of concepts, and it’s impressive how consistently the solutions companies sense what kind of a mood the industry is in. My RSR partner Paula Rosenblum uses the “left vs. right brain” analogy when describing the different skills required to bring a new design concept from “ideation” all the way to store shelves. Short version: the “right brain” is the creative side of the brain, while the “left brain” is where analytical skills “live. This Left vs. Right argument also relates to the NRF event.

In “right brained” years, the Expo floor and conference sessions tend to focus on innovative ideas and bleeding-edge technologies that may deliver real value someday. It’s very easy in those years for the retail technology industry to get way out over its skis. A perfect example is Video Analytics circa 2011. In hindsight, it’s clear that several of the solutions being highlighted in that year were definitely not ready for primetime (full disclosure: I was afflicted by SOS -“Shiny Object Syndrome” - too, when in 2011 I wrote, “there has rarely been a time when the interest in a technology is quite as high as is retailers’ interest in applied video analytics.” ‘Talk about getting out over my skis!).

But in other years, the industry’s collective “left brain” kicks in, and exhibitors, speakers, and attendees alike all want to focus on use cases that drive real value. Looking again at Video Analytics here in 2019, and it’s clear that technology has caught up with the promise and can deliver real tangible value in a number of important ways. What makes that possible is artificial intelligence, or AI- ironically the one technology that stood out as this year’s top Shiny Object at the NRF Big Show.

When looking back at successive NRF events since 2010, the tendency of the event to flip between “ideation” and “implementation” is pretty obvious. For example, in 2010 the exhibitors and speakers were talking in earnest about the need to create an “omnichannel” selling environment – consumers using more than one “channel” to shop. It was also the height of the Great Recession, and retailers needed some convincing to believe that new consumer shopping behaviors enabled by smart mobile devices needed to be considered as the rule, not the exception (I remember one “old timer” opining that he “couldn’t wait for things to get back to normal”). By 2013, retailers generally accepted that the new digitally enabled shopping behaviors were the new normal, and so for a couple of years the NRF events focused more on “what you need to do” than on “why you need to do it”.

Since that time, the industry has gone through a couple more “left vs. right” cycles, but the 2019 event was definitely about “getting on with it” when it comes to re-designing retail businesses for greater agility.

Although there was still plenty of glitter at the event, a few themes seemed pretty clear to me:

First, retailers “get it” that information is a strategic asset, something that can create differentiating value for consumers and retailers alike. So, technologists can stop talking about why that’s important and start talking about what needs to be done and how to get to it;

Secondly, retailers can’t replace all their technology at once. While that may seem ridiculously obvious, it can’t be overstated – just because retailers may know that they need to refresh or replace virtually every technology solution in their portfolios in addition to invest in new automation, that doesn’t mean they can or will drop everything and launch into a multi-year “re-invention” initiative. The best example: “digitalizing the store”. As we often joke, most POS systems are old enough to legally drink. But replacing it is time consuming, incredibly expensive, and without some compelling new functionality, there isn’t an ROI for it. But retailers know that POS is no longer the center of their technology universe, and in many ways stands in the way of modernizing the store. So smart solutions providers are finding ways to offer bridge technologies that can help retailers offer new functionality and a new look-and-feel to old functionality, so that they can move forward to implement the more interesting and rewarding add-ons that consumers demand;

Third, the “Cloud” isn’t any cheaper over the long haul than “on-premise” licensing, but it is the future, and retailers “get it”. What they need is strong guidance in how to transition to the Cloud;

Fourth (and related to the point about Cloud-based solutions); today’s solutions are heads-and-shoulders better than those offered 15 years ago. Most of them do what they are advertised to do, and so retailers generally accept that the biggest part of adoption isn’t code customization, but change management;

And finally, the store is here to stay. What the store will look like is the issue, not whether or not it will exist. Retailers don’t need convincing that the challenge is to modernize stores to be in sync with the way shoppers shop today, with an eye on how consumers will continue to explore new technologies all the time (for example, “conversational” technologies).

There were several more sub-themes on exhibit at the 2019 edition of NRF’s Big Show, but you get the drift. The official tagline for the event was “Get Ready”, but it might well have been “Let’s Get Going”.


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Articles & Opinions February 5, 2019
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