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TechBytes: Top Three Disruptive Retail Technologies of 2014

BY Dan Berthiaume

As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to look back on another year of technological disruption in retail. While many solutions, applications and tools played a role in changing how retailers use technology in their business, three developments in particular stood out. Two of them did not actually launch in 2014, but this was the year they truly achieved their disruptive potential. So read on, and have a happy, prosperous and innovative New Year!

ApplePay

ApplePay disrupted the digital payment landscape the moment it was announced in September. While Apple Pay will probably not obliterate the market for traditional wallets or competing digital wallet solutions, it does possess unique competitive advantages that have already made it a dominant force in digital payment in the two short months it’s been available.

These include payment by swipe of a finger, easy deactivation of Apple Pay-enabled phones for enhanced security, enormous built-in base of iPhone users, and widespread acceptance by major retailers and payment card providers. Even the existence of rival digital payment app CurrentC, supported by retail heavyweights including Wal-Mart, Best Buy and CVS, is testament to retailers’ concern about Apple Pay owning the digital payment space.

Beacons

Once again, Apple proves the source of a major disruptive force in retail IT. Although Apple introduced its low-energy Bluetooth iBeacon transmitters in 2013, beacon technology (the “i” has been dropped from general usage) truly emerged as a leading retail disrupter in 2014.

This past year, a dizzying array of retail IT vendors, from unknown start-ups to industry giants like Samsung released their own solutions based on beacon technology. For every vendor releasing a beacon solution, it seemed there were two retailers launching beacon pilots – and those are just the ones that were publicized.

The main value beacon technology provides retailers is that it helps consumer mobile devices track their position relative to stationary beacons. So far, most beacon pilots have focused on the applicability of beacons to targeted, time-sensitive marketing, they offer retailers other possibilities, as well.

For example, beacons can help retailers determine how individual shoppers are traveling their stores, where they are stopping, where they are avoiding, etc. And McDonald’s is running a pilot where beacons are used to accept employment inquiries and customer service requests from customer mobile devices, as well as push out targeted promotions.

Innovation labs

With the recent announcement that it will build a new digital innovation lab in Boston, CVS Health has joined the ever-expanding ranks of retailers who have launched similar facilities. That list, which has been growing in recent years but reached critical mass in 2014, includes Wal-Mart, Target, Zappos, Staples, Nordstrom and Sears, as well as shopping mall operator Westfield Group.

Not every retailer is in the position to build its own proprietary innovation hot house, but those with the necessary resources are disrupting and streamlining the traditional process of developing retail IT solutions. For example, developing IT applications in-house ensures that they come “out of the gate” fully customized, avoiding what can be considerable time and expense in custom-fitting off-the-shelf technology.

In addition to gaining significant “first mover” advantage over competitors without innovation labs, these retailers can also ensure their technology is tailored to the needs of their specific customer demographics, further advancing the disruptive evolution of retail IT into a tool for customer convenience. The relative simplicity and low cost of cloud-based IT development should lead to more retailers joining the innovation lab club in 2015.

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