What I Learned at NRF

I had the opportunity to attend the National Retail Federation annual conference, the “Big Show,” last week, and my first observation is that it is indeed a big show. It fills every corner of the Javits Center in New York, and it took a full day just to wander through the exhibit space. Wandering around the hall, I saw a few consistent themes coming out of this year’s show:

  • IOE—The Integration of Everything: Not the Internet of Things (IOT), that’s a ways away, but the integration of data, signage, e-commerce, m-commerce, inventory, and yes, payments into a unified whole was being addressed in whole or part by a lot of companies. The most visible manifestation was the integration of customer data into dynamic signage so that information can begin to be tailored to the specific customer. We’re not that far from the vision of signage that speaks directly to the individual that we saw in the movie “Minority Report.” All the pieces appear to be available, it’s just a matter of connecting the dots and then seeing if it works with customers. Beyond the science fiction, access to usable data for real-time in-store decisioning is here now, and its application ranges from inventory management to a screen that allows a customer to “try on” different outfits based on his or her profile.
  • Self-service on steroids: Beyond the self-checkout model that has become commonplace in U.S. retail, several companies were displaying fully automated checkout facilities whereby the customer simply places the merchandise on a belt that passes through a reader and prices are captured automatically. Companies are claiming 99% reliability on pricing all merchandise going through the system. One really interesting aspect is that at least one company is using big data to enhance the bar-code-reading capability, actually recognizing the product as it passes through the reader. The speed was impressive, at least as fast as traditional checkout, and some were claiming even higher speeds. And the system learns over time so that speed and accuracy will continue to improve. The point-of-sale system is fully integrated into the equipment (see above re: IOE).
  • “Ubiquitous experience:” The standard buzzwords “customer experience,” “frictionless commerce,” and “omnicommerce” were everywhere, as expected at a retailers’ conference. A new buzzword emerged from the sessions and conversations: ubiquitous commerce. The concept is that the customer journey can start and stop anywhere, anytime, in person or on any device, and the customer controls the journey. It’s an important concept, as it’s the logical conclusion of the online and offline experiences merging and, rather than being process or merchant driven, the entire focus is on supporting the customers as they decide how to connect with the retailer. Increasingly, the customer journey will begin on a mobile device and migrate through other channels and devices before it’s concluded. 

What does this mean for payments? A great deal. If the entire retail experience is fully personalized and integrated, with an automated checkout process, and the experience is controlled by the customer, payments need to be embedded in the commerce equation—and the less fuss made about them the better. Expect to see payments continue to get buried into the “plumbing” of the retail space, disappearing from the action that matters—the ubiquitous customer experience. 

Based on what was being shown and discussed at NRF, it appears that we are very close to a major breakthrough in the way that information transforms the retail experience. Payments are critical to that transformation … when they disappear.

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