As experts at the annual Consumer Electronics Show talked up new tech innovations for retail, major players in the industry continued to grapple with reality.
Macy’s said it’s closing nearly 30 more stores, Lululemon hired a new executive from Uber, and Amazon is prepping its foray into luxury fashion, all while those in technology spoke of things like predictive artificial intelligence in stores, 5G, and robotics, and more nascent solutions to the sectors myriad troubles.
Although most of these solutions are not yet available on a wide scale for retailers, there was plenty of thought-provoking conversation around what’s coming for the industry. No one doubted that retail and even physical stores will continue, but the industry is in for a lot of change.
Here, WWD breaks down some of the interesting topics for retail to come out of CES 2020:
Moving beyond e-commerce to an “ecosystem”
Having an e-commerce site and digital capability isn’t enough anymore. That’s the baseline of what’s expected of retailers, big and small, new and old. The aspiration for all should be to have a broad ecosystem of touchpoints and interactions with consumers, to get a brand in front of them, wherever they may be and whatever they may be doing.
“It’s about the double play,” Wang said. It’s almost useless to think about e-commerce in totality. It’s an aggregation of multiple channels.”
She added that Alibaba is set to beat out Walmart as the biggest retailer by sales come 2023, hitting more than $1 trillion. Walmart is expected to hit $633 billion that year, while Amazon will be at $514 billion and JD.com will grow to $321 billion.
“Scale players are redefining what retail is,” Wang said.
And physical stores aren’t all headed for the past, either.
“We’re very bullish on the store,” Boren Novakovic, executive vice president and managing director of Edge by Ascential, said. “The boring store deserves to die, but there are other needs that people have. Digital is just becoming the backdrop of how everything works.”
As with media executives, 5G got plenty of talk among the retail-minded. But here, ideas around 5G capabilities and what an expanded data bandwidth will bring are a bit more focused. Mainly, 5G capabilities, when the proper fiber networks start to roll out over the next couple years, will make things like virtual shopping and try on a reality at scale.
“It’s bringing a lot of possibilities together for retail,” Arvin Singh, managing director of connected solutions for Verizon, said. “You’ll be able to put it into checkout, into an automated supply chain, immersive engagement with AR, VR and XR, customers will be able to use virtual try on.” He added that technology like facial recognition for shoppers will be easier to roll out with 5G, as will inventory placement and monitoring.
On the consumer end, Jason Elliott, Nokia’s development director for 5G, said the new bandwidth will impact augmented reality in particular, allowing shoppers “to try on goods and services at home and for sales staff to operate in more of a hands-free environment,” with the use of AR to browse and perform tasks.
Robots for retail
Robots seem to come and go as part of tech. This year at CES they were prevalent, but mainly in the health-care space aimed at the elderly and those needing companionship and emotional support. But some elements of robotic technology are indeed maturing for the retail industry.
With the vast amounts of data collection that has been going on for the last few years, Oliver Mitchell, partner at ff Venture Capital, said certain areas of robotics are “finally affordable to be at retail in the warehouse.” Again, Amazon was pointed to as an example in the space, with its continued rollout of Amazon Go stores and the robotic shelving units in its warehouses that bring goods to humans to be packed in boxes for shipment.
“Do we think sales associates will be replaced by robots? If anything, history has shown us probably not,” Mitchell said. “It’s probably too gimmicky.” But he’s bullish on the implementation of robotics for “menial labor tasks” and said it’s already happening with shelves being scanned by thousands of robots at Walmarts and companies using robots to take over some.
Nevertheless, behind the scenes is where robotics is likely to be implemented in a major way in the coming years. Mitchell said, “the biggest catalyst out there in robotics is in the warehouse.” From last-mile delivery to automating logistics, robotics for the warehouse is expected to be a $4 billion industry this year.
“Cool” not “creepy” with personalization
Consumers are starting to become more aware that all types of digital companies, now including nearly all retailers, are capturing massive amounts of data on them. What they bought, where they live and work, physical and financial specifications, even their mood and much more, is being captured and stored for analysis. Often, consumers are fine with it, so long as they don’t feel duped, but with brands and retailers increasingly focused on personalization there is a line that can be crossed.
“This notion of digital trust, it’s important,” Elliott of Nokia said. “It’s talking about how to build platforms and architecture to be able to give information back to retailers to offer a more personalized experience, but it’s very important how we build for digital trust.”
“The privacy and the trust, that creepy vs. cool, it’s a borderline that varies for everyone, Mary Hamilton, managing director of global digital experiences for Accenture, said. “It can be by market geography. It’s really tricky but an important part of how you build trust with customers.”
Most people agreed that an opt-in strategy or being clear when using an opt-out strategy for consent is a good place to start.
Estimates have it that 53 million voice speakers will be sold this year, making up 40 percent of all searches, and facilitating everything from news to online ordering. It’s an area in which retail has yet to really break through, in part because of the difficulties of searching and finding specific products through voice. And it’s only just starting to be worked through by some on the tech side.
“One of the things that hasn’t happened yet is, unlike the name registrations for URLs, there is no name registration for voice,” Jon Stine, who leads the Open Voice Network, said. “In a world where voice is increasingly part of search, how will someone find you and then know they’re finding the right brand? The lack of standards is a major issue here.”
He added that the use of voice combined with visual is particularly important at retail, which is inherently a visual medium that sells based on how something looks.
Pinterest is one player that is working on at least the visual part of search, when it comes to shopping. The image platform last year launched a visual search tool that allows users to identify through online photos what category a particular pillow or shoe falls in, and serves up related results.
“It’s helping users who don’t have the words to describe what they’re looking for,” Amy Vener, head of retail strategy for Pinterest, said.
But voice and visual search for retail is still being developed and seems to have some ways to go before it matches what one can do by typing in Google’s search bar.