What does retail tech have in store for us in 2022?
Retailers and technology providers typically travel to New York in January for Retail’s Big Show, hosted by the National Retail Federation (NRF), and it has continued this year, although the number of visitors and exhibitors has been reduced due to Omicron.
But the low-key nature of this year’s event hasn’t stopped it from once again being a great indicator of upcoming tech trends and themes in the retail industry. This has been enhanced by an expanded innovation lab and start-up area showcasing some of the more advanced services.
There was no escaping sustainability this year, and various offerings focused on improving supply chain efficiencies to reduce both cost and waste. During Covid-19, environmental issues have been exacerbated by the dramatic increase in online sales, which has reduced margins due to delivery costs and increased waste due to the growth of returns.
A solution has been around for years, but has really come into its own during the pandemic. Companies such as Tesco and Matalan have deployed RFID tags on many products, allowing them to significantly improve inventory visibility throughout their supply chains, which has greatly enhanced their ability to offer clicks and withdrawals across their stores.
Dean Frew, Chief Technology Officer at RFID specialist SML Group, says, “Many retailers realize they have an inventory problem. When customers shop online, they expect to be able to get to the store within hours to pick up the merchandise. But with an inventory accuracy for apparel and footwear of 65/60%, and in some cases as low as 50%, retailers simply don’t know where the right items are in the supply chain. »
This can often lead to customer orders being canceled and refunds being issued when items cannot be found. “Buying online for in-store pickup has fueled conversations [we have] with retailers about technology,” he says. “When online went crazy with Covid, they realized they couldn’t just use warehouses to [fulfilling] online orders. They had to be able to use their stores.
In addition to helping click and collect, RFID technology also improves retailers’ ability to manage returns. This makes it easier to get returned products back into a retailer’s supply chain and therefore increases the prospects of reselling the items, even increasing the chances of doing so at full price.
Digital tools for physical problems
Returns are often caused by ordering the wrong sizes, and although many technological solutions have appeared over the years, the problem has persisted. Morgan Linton, co-founder of Bold Metrics, believes he has developed a sizing tool that could make a difference. While in the past shoppers often took photos of themselves, his solution is to ask customers five questions, such as their height, weight, and shoe size, for Bold Metrics to determine 50 body measurements.
The offer uses machine learning to constantly increase its level of accuracy and feeds data about products that have been returned into the system to further refine its capability. It works with companies like Canada Goose and has helped them reduce returns by 32%, as well as increase conversion rates by 20%. Additionally, Linton says the data is provided to brands so they can potentially change how clothes are made in the first place, further reducing return rates.
Bringing data back into the manufacturing process to reduce returns and waste is a path also taken by Ralph Lauren, which continues to experiment with on-demand production of custom products. He found that his on-demand activities were able to provide valuable learnings. Some personalization elements selected most often by customers have been introduced into the main production lines. Likewise, components that customers preferred not to include have been removed from base products.
Personalization of items is an exciting area for Jason Berns, senior vice president of product and manufacturing innovation at Ralph Lauren, who says it involves high levels of profitability and zero waste.
“When you do [an item] for one person, it can really drive up the margins,” he says. “It’s also experiential and it helps generate value in a new way. We did store activations [for customisations] and some stores have digital screens for item setup, so we know that’s a great experience for online retail too.
Allison Lee, founder of Hemster, whose tech-based tailoring service works with around 100 brands, is also looking to use customer data to reduce returns. “We make tailoring accessible at the point of sale – stand in store and online,” she says. “Instead of customers returning an item, we ask them if they would like it fitted for free. A visit [workshop] site, each item of clothing only takes 10 minutes to change.”
Using the customer data it generates, Lee says it’s possible to create a “silhouette” of the individual which can then be shared with the brand to ensure future purchases will be a perfect fit for the customer. “We can reduce returns by 20%, and people buy more when they know it’s free sewing,” she says.
Robots and buzzwords
Automation and robotics solutions were once again in the spotlight at the NRF, but the days of many robots roaming the aisles looking for a problem to solve are definitely over. This year, logistics and fulfillment was widely seen as using automation technology. Among them was Ottonomy, which showcased its delivery robots that operate in airports across the United States to deliver retail products and branded food and beverages located in travel hubs.
Meanwhile, Gatik is using autonomous vehicles for delivery between retailers’ main distribution warehouses and their fulfillment facilities, including micro fulfillment centers. Sam Saad, vice president of strategic initiatives at Gatik, explains that the company works with Walmart and focuses on specific repeatable routes that do not change and are therefore suitable to be undertaken by driverless vehicles. He says it can reduce the cost of transportation by up to 30%.
A bit more experimental is Dronedeck, which is partnering with Indiana retailers for a trial of its smart mailbox service that sits at the end of consumer aisles. He receives deliveries of goods ordered by drone, which are then deposited safely in the unit.
Such offers are examples of the rise of contactless exchanges, which have accelerated across all retail sectors during the pandemic. Robomart is firmly rooted in this area. Its call-in-store proposition involves customers requesting a visit from the mobile store through an app where they can view available products. When the mobile store (a converted, tech-rich van) arrives, the entire process is contactless – including RFID tags on items and payment made through the app.
Carson Denbow, marketing manager at Robomart, says the service is currently being used in Los Angeles, with vans typically arriving in around 10 minutes, from locations hosted by REEF Technologies, which will soon open its first UK locations. Since buyers do not pre-order the goods and the vans contain up to 80 products, the proposal leads to a high level of impulse buying.
Without a doubt, the new buzzwords at the NRF this year were metaverses and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). While the retail industry has taken care of both online and offline channels, it has now been joined by a third way of selling goods – metaverse-commerce. This decentralized virtual world involving NFTs, blockchain and avatars has certainly captured the imagination of tech vendors who have sought to integrate some of these elements into their services whether it really makes sense or not. It’s similar to previous years, when artificial intelligence was visible on every stand.
For retailers, it’s really about experimenting with existing metaverses, including Roblox and Fortnite, where individuals are represented by their avatars.
Among those committing to this new area is the Carrefour supermarket, which has built a store in Roblox where people receive credits when their avatars eat healthy. Nike has been very experimental on many fronts in recent years and has created a virtual representation of its US headquarters in Roblox among various initiatives.
One of the reasons for exploring this new universe is to get closer to young consumers, who are clearly the potential future customers of distributors.
Patrice Louvet, CEO of Ralph Lauren Corporation, says, “We need to innovate, experiment and try new things. That’s what we do in the metaverse. First, it’s about engaging with customers to create an experience. On Roblox, you can have a virtual coffee in a virtual Ralph Lauren store. I don’t know how big this revenue stream will be, but we are considering buying space in this decentralized lot. »