With consumers seeking personal, faster and easier shopping experiences, retailers are increasingly looking to technology for solutions on the front end and the back end of their operations.
With improving business trends and tax cuts, companies will have more money to spend on technology. But the challenge is there’s a morass of emerging technologies complicating where to place their bets.
“The challenge for most start-ups is money,” said Pano Anthos, founder and managing director of XRC Labs, a technology accelerator. And the challenge for retailers is to “get closer” to customers, Anthos added. “It’s about generating an experience that gives the customer a closer connection to the store.”
At last week’s National Retail Federation convention in New York, retailers explored an “Innovation Lab” organized by XRC Labs to showcase robotics, personalization, augmented reality, faster checkout systems, spatial recognition and other technologies, either already in commercial use or at the start-up stage.
Here’s a sampling of several of the technologies exhibited at the Innovation Lab.
• Mystor-E, a technology from Tel Aviv, utilizes cameras and computer vision to enable retailers to make real-time changes to visual displays supporting merchandise displays, depending on who approaches the merchandise. The technology identifies the shopper’s gender, height, weight and age, then triggers a change in the digital display to feature a garment suitable to the person standing there. The “smart display” technology is an alternative to traditional static displays, likes signs or mannequins.
• Strypes is an online personalization engine for customizing garments with colors, embroidery, embossing, patches, details and other custom touches. Strypes utilizes 3-D printing technology, and is being used at Coach and Roots.
• Loomia is a lightweight, battery-patterned lining for “smart clothes” that reports back to the company about when and how, and how often, the customer uses the product to determine its longevity. Loomia also heats up for comfort and can be used for jackets, coats and performance wear. L.L. Bean is testing the technology, demonstrating that the long-established brand has an eye on innovation and improving its offering.
• Revieve uses facial recognition technology from a selfie to make skin-care product recommendations. The company helps beauty brands and retailers “bring the in-store beauty consultant to the digital age” using technology that reads skin tone, eye color, facial shape and skin concerns and provides recommendations for makeup selection. Augmented reality allows shoppers to see what they would look like with the products.
• Volumental utilizes 3-D scanning to create foot avatars that in a matter of seconds are transferred to tablets that help associates determine for their customers the best fit for footwear brands. The Swedish technology is being used by such footwear firms as Ecco and New Balance.
• Five Element Robotics offers, among other products, a robotic shopping cart that figures out the best path to take through a store based on a shopping list you transfer from your smart phone to the cart. The cart can be equipped with scanners so a shopper can purchase items as they place them in the cart, avoiding a checkout line.
• FindMine, a technology used by Maurices, Adidas and American Eagle, utilizes artificial intelligence to “complete the look.” When a shopper buys or browses an item, FindMine automatically provides suggestions on additional items to create a wardrobe. For the shopper, it’s like having a personal stylist. For the retailer, the idea is to increase basket size.
• Locus Robotics manufactures warehouse robots that work with people to increase e-commerce fulfillment productivity. The company says that the integration of their robotics solution leads to significant fulfillment productivity increases, getting online orders to customers faster and with better accuracy. Quiet Logistics, a third party logistics company with clients including Zara and Bonobos, is currently deploying Locus technology.
• Cosy is a beacon-free roving device resembling an upright vacuum cleaner that moves up and down the shopping aisles and provides “aisle intelligence” on what’s out of stock, eliminating manual labor to manage inventory, and determines whether promotions and planograms are properly presented.
• Optoro, a software system Steve Case has invested in, helps retailers manage returns, which are on the rise due to the growth of online shopping. Optoro helps retailers determine how and where to redistribute returned or excess items, whether it should go back to a store, an outlet or a warehouse. It’s being used by Best Buy and Staples.
• Facenote is a system using artificial intelligence and facial recognition to automatically notify sales associates that you are entering the store and access information on the shopper, such as what’s been previously purchased. It’s being used by Melissa, a shoe chain, and requires a shopper to opt-in and text a selfie, and a webcam or security camera in the store. It’s designed for stores to provide more personalized shopping experiences.
• Lexset, which is part of Intellectual Ventures, helps decorate a home through artificial intelligence and augmented reality. So if you need a couch, for example, you photograph the table and chairs already in the room, and a couch, presumably one that’s aesthetically suitable and with the proper dimensions, will appear depicted in the space photographed.
• KiraKira 3-D is a “virtual Etsy” that helps turn consumers into designers. The company provides tools for girls and women with no engineering backgrounds or access to software and enables them to design, share and 3-D print creations. It’s considered a mobile 3-D modeling studio with a marketplace providing colors, design accessories and print materials to customize a 3-D print design that gets shipped to your home.