Shoptalk Captured the Tumult in the Retail Market

When Amazon first set up shop, I could still enjoy a stroll through my Manhattan neighborhood without it looking like the main drag was “For Lease.” I could still see my doorman. He wasn’t yet buried beneath a chin high stack of Prime deliveries.

I know that progress marches on, but if last week’s Shoptalk, a tradeshow that looks at the future of retail, is any indication, it’s not marching. It’s lurching forward in search of a new Camelot of Shopping where online and physical stores meld seamlessly together. It’s a vision totally dominated by data — culling insights into who’s ready to buy what, when, and where. It’s a landscape in which customers are so over-analyzed by predictive algorithms, so hammered by loyalty offers, and so perplexed at comparison shopping that they just might give up consumerism and head back to the farm.

As retailers are faced with the complexities of an omni-channel market where their products and brands need to be in more places than an octopus’ arms, a new set of trends is emerging.

The Data-Driven Life is the Road to Retail Salvation

It seemed like every other exhibitor at Shoptalk was hawking insights into big data or smarter ways to drive content, commerce, and customer loyalty. Wealth Engine, or WE, mines 60 different data sources to help marketers find the wealthiest consumers, analyzing their shopping patterns. Bronto, boasting clients like Tarte, Vince Camuto, and Brooks, controls and organizes your messaging across email marketing, newsletters, and popups, then analyzes the data it gathers. Certona, Acquia , Bloomreach, Sailthru — all fascinating new platforms that each promised a variation on the theme of personalizing the customer experience.

The takeaway? These companies are going to need to get a lot better at differentiating their services and at justifying their costs. If not, we’ll be looking at far fewer players in this arena next year. And with big players like Salesforce, Adobe, Amazon, IBM, and Google looking similar types of services they’re going to face even stiffer competition. Finally, let’s remember that all the data in the world can still steer you towards some pretty bad decisions (just think about the data collected during the last election).

Physical Stores Fight Back

Despite appearances, only 10% of shopping today is done online. But retail stores are having the darnest time reaching the volumes they need to compete with online. As screen weary shoppers yearn for experiences, stores are feeling a renaissance. The Container Store garnered praise for outfitting their store employees with new-age walkie talkies from Theatro. This small, tech-enabled earpiece connects all employees to each other and to the store’s big computers, helping them service customers and check on stocked items without bellowing over loudspeakers or running back and forth. Target announced it would remodel its stores to focus on customers who come in to just pick up one quick item versus those who want to browse the miles of aisles. Walmart announced its new Silicon Valley-style Innovation Lab.

AI and Voice Input the Road to Salvation

Artificial intelligence, being able to find patterns and learn about customers’ habits was a hot topic. MindMeld, a young AI company, is developing a platform that uses natural language and voice chat to deploy everything from chatbots to smart virtual assistants. The rumor mill says they’ll be powering a new Starbucks experience to let you order by voice from your mobile device. Commerce.AI is also building a platform that will learn and make inferences for retailers. As a matter of fact, AI was the golden calf of Shoptalk. Michelle Evans writes about the kinds of things AI will do for retail.

Shopping is a Conversation

Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and other voice interfaces are the next shopping frontier. At Shoptalk, Google announced that Home would be able to locate the nearest store, find items in the right size, and more. And newcomers like Twiggle use AI to sharpen their answers to queries by looking at the meaning of what’s being asked of them.

Wherefore Amazon?

Amazon is tough, but not unbeatable. It’s not a pretty, nor a personal shopping experience, and it feels about as authentic as the pocketbook I bought from a street vendor the other day. Competitors are hoping that shoppers yearning for personal, authentic, and beautiful experiences from brands will begin to see Amazon as the Walmart of the online world, not particularly community friendly.

That said, the company isn’t exactly taking a beach break. At Shoptalk they were showcasing Amazon Pay, a digital wallet that can be used anywhere, not just in Amazon stores. And Amazon Marketplaces, a platform made up of third party sellers — now responsible for approximately 50% of Amazon-based sales — continues to grow. E-commerce-enabled Amazon Alexa has made shopping on Amazon as easy as calling out its name. And the online giant is heavily experimenting with physical stores, too.

What was missing from Shoptalk? Not much virtual reality, but check out InContext if you’re interested. Not much talk of the blockchain and how it will affect retail (see Chain, a sponsor) and not much in the way of smart garments except for a demo of NXP smart garment chip that can communicate messages to the user.

The one thing I can predict with any certainty is that shopping is about to become the next tech proving ground. It’ll change how you purchase things online, in store, and in places you never expected to shop before. Like your car, for example. Choice will abound. The only other prediction? The market for Excedrin may skyrocket as you search for your ultimate shopping solution.

Robin Raskin is founder of Living in Digital Times (LIDT), a team of technophiles who bring together top experts and the latest innovations that intersect lifestyle and technology. LIDT produces conferences and expos at CES and throughout the year focusing on how technology enhances every aspect of our lives through the eyes of today’s digital consumer.

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