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Shop.org: In Review?

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Fall conference season is in full swing, and last week’s Shop.org is always one of the biggest of the bunch. Partner Nikki Baird and I spent two solid days in Philadelphia to take it all in. And normally that would be easy to report out.

But here’s the thing. It was hard to get a read on the true feel of this year’s show. I’d be remiss to comment on the content of the conference portion of Shop.org, as both Nikki and I were only able to catch the opening day keynote session, featuring QVC’s Mike George. It was an excellent conversation to listen in on, and if it was any indicator of the rest of the agenda, proves NRF’s commitment to seriously upping the content portion for all of its events in recent years.

Instead, we spent our time on the Expo Hall floor trying to get a feel for what the cutting edge technologists of the omni-channel world are up to. And here’s where it gets tough to quantify. Half of the vendors we spoke to were over the moon with the show. Record numbers of pre-arranged meetings with retailers, and perhaps more importantly: record numbers of unscheduled pop-ins from curious new retailers looking to know more. They also cited the right people in attendance from these retailers – meaning decision makers. From a previous life in the events business, I can attest that these are a large part of what make the difference between an event that merely survives, and one that flourishes. And Shop.org had no shortage of very happy customers.

But it also had its fair share of vendors – powerful and relevant ones, at that – who felt that the show didn’t live up to expectation. Rumblings about attendance were aplenty, likely aided by the fact that the show floor was spread out over a massive expo hall that may well have been too physically large to generate the energy that a smaller space with the same occupants would have created. This could very well be the byproduct of a show that moves around every year (and therefore misses the opportunity to hone in on what works best in one space year after year), OR it may serve as an indicator about the upcoming holiday season. Are retailers too busy to send digitally-focused delegates to a show in early October this year? So like I said, it was difficult to read. Was attendance even down? And if it was, could that actually be a good omen for the holiday season to come? Tough to tell.

What I can tell is that if I had to choose one word to sum up the message of this year, it would be “personalization.” Nearly every vendor had some allusion to it in their Shop.org 2015 messaging – some of it real, some if it vapor. As Nikki so eloquently put about halfway through day one, several demos required a certain “suspension of disbelief”, particularly as it relates to knowing a consumer’s online behavior upon arrival in the store. Nonetheless, the buzzword of the year persisted from one meeting to the next, and that brings me to the question we got asked most: what were the most interesting things you saw on the floor? So with that, here’s some of what we saw.

Nikki: The Rich Relevance / Starmount combination is the first real example that I’ve seen that demonstrates context: understanding the difference between what should be recommended to a shopper sitting at home on a laptop vs. what should be recommended to a shopper standing in the store with the product in front of her, while also leveraging her past online browsing history. One’s first instinct might be to say that there should be no difference, but between the two companies, they are now able to track behaviors by channel, and find out if there is a true difference once and for all. But regardless of behavior, it only makes sense to make in-store product recommendations in the context of the store – for example, only showing relevant recommendations that are actually stocked in that store.

And as for me, I really liked what IBM was doing with their visual merchandising tools. I also really liked the fact that they requested a briefing afterwards to get our take on what we saw. It’s one thing for a vendor to brief us in advance of a show to share what we’ll be seeing, but that can sometimes be a fairly one-sided conversation. Following up afterwards with a brief call to get our input on how to improve? That’s just plain clever. And it also shows a focus on customer-centricity, leveraging analyst feedback to ensure the message is right for retailers.

As for things I wasn’t expecting to see, Shelfbucks definitely captured my attention. The demo involved a small, battery powered and fully disposable beacon integrated into a cardboard endcap for display at a grocer. If a consumer has the retailer’s app, proximity to the display results in engagement – in this case, a promotion, but with a future wide-open to more substantial offerings (the word “personalized” certainly showed up here, too). As we’ve said in so much of our recent research, the key to being “how and where consumers live” is to foster engagement, and, unfortunately, much of that engagement will be promotional for quite some time to come. Yet what I really liked about Shelfbucks was a) the longview to a time when communication with the consumer means a lot more than promotional offers and b) the fact that the cost is entirely passed along to the manufacturer. In the demo we saw, a demo of Planters’ pistachios was there to “talk” to the consumer passing by. Kraft foods would eat (pardon the pun) all of the cost of the tech, and the retailer would have no steps added to business as usual. In fact, early findings have shown that 40% of such promotions have never even made it to retailers’ floors, often only to be found undiscovered or in a pile of recycling. It’s a boon all the way around. So why wouldn’t a retailer adopt it? To paraphrase CEO Erik McMillan, the retailer needs an app, and that’s proven to be quite a gateway. For now, at least.

I also really liked EloTouch Solutions, a technologist that admittedly has a long ways to go, but is working towards something near and dear to RSR’s heart: making the store associate more valuable. The solution relies heavily on large-format digital screens in store, helping associate and customer solve shopping problems together (in a “personalized” way?). But here’s why I liked this so much: because people still like to visit stores – and always will. And while a completely unarmed employee has proven useless to most mobile-armed consumers, there’s still something vaguely annoying about when a store associate tries to help me out via the exact same technology I already have in my possession. EloTouch is not offering iPhones or iPads, and they’re certainly not offering self-service kiosks; they’re offering employee assistance with scale. There’s a certain level of gravitas with a 32” screen that just doesn’t come from a tablet. Like I said, they’ve got a ways to go, but I very much appreciated the path that they are on.

All in all, I’m glad I went. I think Nikki is, too. But Shop.org may have introduced more questions for me than answers this year. Namely, what are upcoming holidays going to be like, and more pointedly: what is Shop.org going to be like next year?

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Articles & Opinions October 12, 2015
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