Previewing the future of retail

An inventory-tracking robot from Fellow Robots scans store shelves and tracks whether items are priced correctly. The bots are currently being tested in Lowe’s stores in California.
National Retail Federation
An inventory-tracking robot from Fellow Robots scans store shelves and tracks whether items are priced correctly. The bots are currently being tested in Lowe’s stores in California.

There were robots rolling around on the floor of the Javits Center in New York last weekend, while attendees strapped on VR headsets to enter virtual worlds. But it wasn’t a tech conference. Retailers from around the world had gathered for the National Retail Federation’s Big Show. The event serves as an opportunity for a cross-section of the industry to share ideas and expectations for retail’s future — which clearly will be increasingly digital and data-centric. Here are some of the biggest trends I noticed.


Retail used to mean monotony: workers stocking and restocking shelves to keep things neat and orderly. But the introduction of robots may allow (human) employees to focus more on customers. I got up close and personal with a bot from a company called Fellow Robots. It’s about five feet tall and has scanners, cameras, and touchscreens to help employees and customers find and track inventory. The device can cruise the aisles to assess whether shelves are stocked and products are properly labeled. Some of the company’s robots are already deployed in Lowe’s stores in California. 


There was a huge increase in the sale of voice-activated home devices over the holidays, but expect more voice technology to be built into vehicles so that people can shop while driving. Late last year, GM introduced Marketplace, which allows consumers to make purchases at Shell and ExxonMobile gas stations and to order from Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts without leaving their vehicles. It was clear that retailers are already thinking about how autonomous vehicles might create a more captive audience of shoppers.



Retailers are starting to strategize about how they’ll use newfound savings from the federal tax overhaul. During a panel presentation, NRF’s chief economist, Jack Kleinhenz, and other economists speculated that Walmart’s announcement this month that it was investing in its employees may be the first indication of where the industry is headed. The retailer is raising the minimum wage for new employees to $11 an hour, expanding paid parental leave, and offering one-time bonuses to eligible staff. The economists called the move promising, particularly because the labor market is getting tighter. Companies will need to do more to recruit and retain retail talent in an industry with notoriously high turnover rates. 


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The holiday shopping numbers demonstrated that 2017 was a turning point for mobile sales. The software company Adobe found that over $7 billion was spent on tablets or smartphones between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, with mobile devices accounting for 52 percent of visits and 36 percent of revenue during that period. In New York, several companies showcased technology that allows shoppers to sync their online shopping carts with in-store purchases. Boston-based NewStore, for example, demonstrated how its software eliminates the clumsy task of filling in address and purchase information by linking directly to ApplePay on your phone. Creating a seamless shopping experience for customers “gets you as fast as possible to purchase,” said Phil Granof, the company’s chief marketing officer.


Wander into a typical grocery store and you’ll find shelves stocked two-feet deep. The products on them have printed labels that regularly need updating. But grocers are now experimenting with digital shelving. The Swedish company Pricer’s electronic shelf labels, which use technology made by Billerica-based E ink, allow retailers to update prices easily and run promotions when they spot sales in a competitor’s stores.

And grocery giant Kroger offered demos of its EDGE smart-shelf technology, which uses video displays running along shelves to show prices and ads. The grocer, which is now selling the technology, foresees a day when the shelves sync with your smartphone, pointing you to items on your shopping list or displaying food items that meet your dietary needs.


The number of virtual reality headsets on the show floor was surprising, given how slowly VR has been to catch on with consumers. But retailers looking to create in-store experiences to compete with online stores may look to VR as a solution. I strapped on a headset and tried Needham-based PTC’s virtual shopping experience, where I could see the specs of handbag in 3-D. Visa Checkout was also offering a chance to use a Google Cardboard device to see and shop products from within its app. Whether shoppers will actually want such experiences is still to be determined, but it seems retailers are determined to at least experiment with the technology.



We use texting to communicate with friends and loved ones, but when communicating with stores and restaurants, we’re still restricted primarily to asking questions via phone, e-mail, or online chat. In her keynote presentation, Jennifer Bailey, Apple’s vice president for Internet services, touted the upcoming launch of its business chat function later this year. It will allow iPhone users to message stores, ask questions, and make purchases using text messages linked with ApplePay. 

If you’ve got a suggestion for Talking Shop, e-mail Janelle Nanos at Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.