NRF 2014: Seamless, Mobile and RFID Shine

As always, the NRF Conference & Exposition went by in a blur, but looking back on three jam-packed days of industry insight and networking, a few trends kept coming up again and again. Seamless retail, full mobilization of customers and employees, and item-level RFID tagging stood out as topics of interest among exhibitors and attendees. Following are a few thoughts about each of these trends that will help shape the direction of retail in the year ahead.

Seamless Retailing – Moving Beyond Omni-channel
The retail industry has by and large reached the “acceptance” stage in dealing with the death of the channel. Omni-channel means unifying your different channels into a single, coherent customer experience. But your customers no longer recognize the existence of channels. To the average modern consumer, clicking on an item on a mobile site is indistinguishable from picking it up on a store shelf. It’s all part of the same blended virtual/physical experience consumers have come to know in every other aspect of their lives and now expect when they shop.

There is no generally accepted term for this post-omni-channel retail model yet. The situation is reminiscent of the first decade of this century, which still does not really have a name. “Seamless retailing” was a phrase frequently heard at NRF, however, and it is an accurate description.

Mobile Goes Where the Customer (or Associate) Goes
Ubiquitous mobility, both for customer- and employee-facing applications, is a subset of the seamless retailing trend important enough to warrant its own category. Mobile devices have become the de facto platform for supporting how people live, work and shop, and retailers are responding to this paradigm shift. Most retailers now develop websites with either a “mobile first” or responsive design strategy that ensures an optimized mobile customer experience, and many also enhance the seamless aspect of their store environment with features such as mobile self-checkout and expanded product information available via mobile barcode or QR code scan.

In addition, retailers are increasingly recognizing the value of providing store employees with mobile devices. Using smartphones and tablets, store associates can enhance the customer experience with services such as targeted upselling and cross-selling, “endless aisle” access to complete chainwide inventory, and line-busting instant checkout.

RFID Finds a Purpose
Back in August, I wrote a column stating the use case for RFID in retail was finally becoming clearer. Since that time, the use case has crystallized. RFID has found its purpose in retail, and it is as a means of tracking high-value items in the store. Item-level tagging lets retailers more accurately track inventory, maintain security, and also perform better customer service.

At least two major vendors were displaying RFID-based solutions that give retailers real-time insight into what items customers bring in and out of the dressing room, and also help customers request alternate sizes, styles, etc. from store associates without having to go back on the store floor. Pallet-level tagging of less expensive items for supply chain management continues, but does not look like it will serve as the primary value proposition that drives more widespread adoption of RFID in retail.

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