SXSW 2019 in Austin, Tex.

South by Southwest, the massive tech and entertainment festival, is a bit of the Internet brought to life — there’s too much of everything, a lot of noise and, somewhere in there, some really good insights and important trends.

Lavish activations, in-depth panel sessions, a smorgasbord of experiences and just the buzz on the Austin, Tex., streets made clear that amid all the hubbub, a wave of emerging technologies is reaching an inflection point and changing from fantastical concepts to real tools. And brands of all types are falling all over themselves to adopt them.

Executives descended on SXSW en masse to wax poetic about their efforts to meet the future head-on, from Walmart’s work with virtual reality, machine-learning and robotic tech to amplify its grocery business, to Kohl’s Corp.’s interests in VR and Passage AI’s chatbots, to Amazon’s considerable work in artificial intelligence to crack personalized shopping for fashion consumers.

Technology’s rich potential in retail is starting to bear fruit, from digital efforts to hardware pursuits. Walmart, for example, found that shelf-scanning robotics slashed the inefficiencies of workers racing around stores to check inventory levels.

At Accenture’s installation, the consulting firm showcased how retailers are using tools like augmented reality for Kendra Scott earrings or sunglass try-ons to Salesforce’s artificial intelligence tool, Einstein, to draw insights from data to get a more holistic view of the customer. In another area, the firm demoed VR goggles that can track the user’s gaze in a virtual store and inform brick-and-mortar merchandising strategy.

“It’s how people can visualize product on themselves and how it’s connected now to the journey much more seamlessly,” said Accenture Interactive’s Rori DuBoff.

Accenture’s display showcasing how eye-tracking tech can tell retailers where shoppers are looking to inform store planning and merchandising.  Adriana Lee

The takeaway: Innovation in retail is progressing nicely. More tools are allowing online and off-line stores to give customers useful experiences, while giving companies more information to help them strategize.

But there was another emerging theme: Being innovative alone just doesn’t cut it anymore. And it leads to a critical question that kept begging to be articulated this week: When everyone is innovative…is anyone, really?

In the meantime, the dangers and pitfalls of tech’s biggest platforms are honing a sharp edge that cuts across cultural and political lines. Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar ignited a firestorm of media attention when they blasted big tech — in no small part because they chose a technology festival as the place to criticize the tech industrial complex.

Warren wants to break up the “tech monopolies,” and when it came to the possibility of hurting the bottom-lines of big-time tech executives like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, she summed up her point of view in two words: “Boo hoo!”

On Thursday, as SXSW continue on with its blockchain portion of the programming, the tech world was buzzing with the news that Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, and WhatsApp boss Chris Daniels were leaving their roles. Cox largely had been considered a contender as chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg’s successor. This follows the announcement of retail chief Angela Ahrendts leaving Apple Inc., among others, in what looks like an exodus of high-profile tech executives.

The changes were not only stunning, but might be indicative of potential changes facing the big tech platforms that retailers are increasingly relying on.

Amazon, a fairly self-reliant operation, is working on bolstering its self-sufficiency even further with its own development in advertising and influencer networks. Barring antimonopolistic overtures from D.C. or other regulatory intervention, the company will continue stoking admiration and fear from retailers large and small.

No matter the SXSW brand or retail session, the company is almost always the wooly mammoth in the room. Tips on how to work with the Amazon marketplace or how to fend off the threat from the e-commerce giant made for major talking points.

Standing-room-only at the Australia House SXSW panel on brands and community.  Adriana Lee

If few can compete with Amazon’s reach and its deep expertise in technology, logistics and fulfillment, then it behooves brands and retailers to compete on other fronts — like authenticity.

As Will.i.am brand director Lindsay Cornell put it: “It’s not what you say, it’s not what you do. It’s who you are. I think that’s going to be the future of successful businesses and successful brands — not looking at the platform, not looking at the client offering, but really looking at what you’re standing for and what value you have.”

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