“I would love to say that retail is back, but that would be wrong,” National Retail Federation (NRF) Chairman Chris Baldwin, also the CEO and president of BJ’s Wholesale Club, said during an opening presentation of NRF 2019: Retail's Big Show, the trade group’s annual New York convention. “Retail never went away. As I stand here today, I can say that our industry is more healthy, vibrant, innovative and exciting than ever.”
Judging by the crowds at the Javits Center, which included 700 exhibitors and 40,000 attendees, Baldwin’s assessment appeared accurate. On the show floor, the focus was on how advances in technology can help retailers run efficient and modern businesses.
For food retailers in particular, this means rethinking, coordinating or even replacing legacy systems and practices that in many cases predate the hundreds of inventions before them. An air of uncertainty pervading the future of the economy—a topic addressed by Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen in a separate NRF address—loaned a certain urgency to that mission, while encouragement could be found where pioneering experiments were turning into rapid rollouts.
What follows are highlight from the show floor.
Opportunity for the Prepared
“What’s going on in retail today are that the pressures of online are hitting people hard and they’re trying to get their head around omnichannel,” says Andrew Blatherwick, chairman of supply chain solutions firm Relex Solutions. “Most of them are saying ‘How do I compete in a realty fast-changing world now?’ They’re also asking how to reduce costs, because—though no one wants to mention it—everyone believes there’s a recession on the way. So people are getting geared up for that.”
In Blatherwick’s opinion, a downturn in the economy can be an opportunity for the well-prepared, but not everyone is there.
“A lot of big grocery retailers are still embedded in solutions that are 1990s technology. And they really haven’t updated it. They’ve patched it, brought little bit in to try and help, but ultimately, competing today is nothing like it was in the 1990s, and there’s ultimately nothing that can be done that will make 1990s technology relevant today.”
Linda Palanza, CEO of OneView Commerce, discussed a “next-generation” mobile point-of-sale solution that she said integrates all touch points of the customer journey that The Kroger Co. will premier in coming months.
The cloud-based technology addresses what she called the “silos” of legacy systems that, for example, make it difficult for retailers to offer the same price to online shoppers they’d find in stores, or turn a curbside exchange into an inefficient trip back inside the store.
“Grocery is burdened by old technology,” she says. “Until the iPhone that could surf the web came along in 2010, all they cared about until then was, 'How fast can I scan this?' They’d run a promotion, get them a receipt and get them out the door. Now shoppers want to start their shopping trip online, come into the store and pick it up at the curb. They scan to see if there’s allergies in the food. And if you’ve got a lot of systems that don’t talk to each other, that’s almost impossible.”
A Smarter Cart
Ahmed Beshary of Caper Systems says the company’s AI-enabled shopping cart—now at certain stores in New York for nearly a year—are bringing in about 18% more revenue than trips made with regular carts. The units serve as self-checkouts but also as vehicles for customer messaging. For example, when a shopper places pasta and ground beef in a cart, a mounted screen can generate recipes reminding shoppers to remember the basil and the sauce.
Enabling the BOPIS Boom
Kevin Dugan of Apex Supply Chain Technologies stands alongside a pickup unit that helps retailers efficiently store prepared shopping orders for customer pickup. The company said the penetration of shoppers using buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) and click and collect increased by 53% in 2018. Dugan said the units are a potential boon for supermarket foodservice, citing Apex’s “Pizza Portals” now deployed throughout the Little Caesar’s chain.
The Kroger Co.’s Sunrise Technology unit demonstrates the company’s proprietary EDGE digital shelf system. Michael Zettler of Kroger said the retailer plans to expand EDGE from its current deployment at endcaps in Kroger’s Cincinnati division stores to additional divisions and eventually to store aisles—paying for it through new advertising revenue from CPG firms, and revenues from other retailers to whom Sunrise licenses the technology.
“The shelf edge is the moment of truth,” Zettler says. “It’s where the customer is making a decision. It’s a compelling story to say, ‘I can influence a customer right here, when they’re in front of the product and ready to buy.’”
The EDGE system can support dynamic pricing, can flip to an “associate mode,” helping employees stock and restock more efficiently, and is backlit, in part to better absorb bangs from errant shopping carts, Zettler said. Items on EDGE shelves are seeing average sales lift of 6% to 11%, he added.
“Our customers have also told us, ‘Please don’t turn our store into a miniature Las Vegas.’ They don’t want signage overtaking the product. So we’ve dialed down the brightness. Several of the customers we interviewed actually thought it was just a piece of paper under the plastic.”
Enabling Dynamic Pricing
Kroger was far from the only vendor pushing shelf-based solutions designed for greater pricing agility and improved customer experience. Brian Correa of Displaydata said its electronic shelf labels, now deployed at German retailer Kaufland, enable dynamic pricing to reduce fresh food waste; can display richer date such as product ratings; and improve customer experience with coupon redemptions and offers.
Handheld Computer Vision
Also on the edge of the shelf, Scandit is putting computer vision in the hands of shoppers. Samuel Mueller, CEO and co-founder of the Switzerland-based technology company, demonstrates how scanning by phone can quickly read a shelf, providing shoppers with product information and offers and store associates with stocking help, order picking and shelf management.
“It’s a platform of innovation to rethink your store operations altogether,” Mueller said.
Robots Save the Grapes
Frederic McCoy of Jabil and Tim Rowland of Jabil’s Badger Technologies are all smiles after deploying what they believe to be the largest fleet of retail-store robots in the U.S.—about 500 are headed to Ahold Delhaize’s Stop & Shop and Giant Food Stores divisions. The units, which Ahold Delhaize dubbed “Marty,” are capable of inventory and shelf-management tasks but at Ahold, are deployed to focus on alerting shoppers and employees to hazards such as spills. Tests over the past year indicated the retailer could greatly reduce liability issues and better deploy labor, while data from the test is resulting in cleaner and more efficient stores.
“One of the store managers in the test told me, ‘This was the first year I haven’t had a claim on a grape,’” Rowland said.