NRF 2019: Digital Transformation Conquers Retail

New Technologies For Employees Improve The Customer Experience

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Steven Lerner

One of the largest business expos in the world, the National Retail Federation’s Big Show (NRF 2019), might seem like a retail convention on the surface, but it is very much a technology event. In fact, it is as much of a technology event as any of the other major IT expos.

Evidence of this technology focus was on full display during the first day of NRF 2019 on January 13. A packed auditorium of attendees gathered to learn about the digital transformation of the largest retail organization, Walmart, which also happens to be one of the largest buyers of technologies. In the past year, Walmart has modernized its workforce by adding more mobile capabilities for customers, training its workers with virtual reality, and leveraging blockchain to monitor the supply chain of food. Walmart is also going to hire 2,000 more technology staffers in 2019.

In every sense of the word, Walmart is a tech company, and the rest of retail industry is following suit.

"It's no longer acceptable to have a non-digital experience,” said Jeremy King, Walmart’s EVP and CTO. “Technology is changing retail."

Retail Is Technology

Technology is encompassing every major decision in the retail industry. If you were to visit the expo floor of NRF 2019, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single non-technology exhibitor. One of the tech companies exhibiting at NRF 2019 was Hughes Enterprise Division. Although Hughes is known for its consumer business, it also boasts an expanding enterprise unit that manages in-store services like WiFi, voice over IP (VoIP), software-defined network areas (SD-WAN), and digital signage.

“NRF is absolutely a tech convention,” said Mike Tippets, vice president of marketing and organizational development for the Hughes Enterprise Division.

Many of the leading enterprise solutions that are found at technology events were also exhibiting at NRF 2019, include Versa Networks. The tech company provides IT service management and security, which includes deploying Android in retail and supply chain operations. It services enterprises across numerous sectors, including retail, which has a growing need for technology.

“IT is everything from your physical security, such as a video monitoring of your door and your back office, to mobile applications,” said Atchison Frazer, CMO for Versa Networks. “It's the complete spectrum of technology that helps retail organizations transform their business.”

New Solutions And New Challenges

There’s no shortage of new technological solutions in the retail sector. Frazer says that “micro segmentation” is one of the new technological trends in the industry, with retailers incorporating free WiFi for guests, new point of sale (POS) systems for checkout, and more business apps for workers. Depending on the retailer, these solutions might only comprise the tip of the new technology iceberg.

“I can now transform the customer experience because I can introduce augmented reality, virtual reality(VR), artificial intelligence (AI) — all of these kinds of cool things that give you an online-like experience in the physical brick and mortar environment,” said Frazer.

New technological solutions in retail, as in every sector, means that there are new challenges, including securing data. Ivanti, a tech company that provides IT service management and security, was one of the exhibitors at NRF 2019. The company can securely deploy Android in retail and supply chain operations. It also manages and provisions devices for enterprises across numerous sectors.

Alex Evans, principal product manager for Ivanti, says that one challenge is that some enterprises are using legacy backend systems that have been in place for decades, and they don’t want to change.

“We provide new functionality without any backend infrastructure changes,” said Evans. “I think a lot of customers are wary of the move to Android, because it's a whole new operating system. It changes the way they've done the provisioning processes for years.”

Happy Employees Turn Into Happy Customers

More retailers are pivoting their strategies to improve customer satisfaction. However, in order to make that happen, retailers first have to enhance the employee experience with new technologies.

“Workers expect the same mobility and flexibility they have in their personal lives,” said Mike Puzen, regional sales manager with Chrome Enterprise during a session at NRF 2019.

Improving the mobile experience is a key trend in retail, and it is one area that Ivanti has noticed significant changes.

“We’re moving toward a more mobile-based workforce,” said Evans. “Previously, when we used to sell into a store, we might sell them five or six licenses for the hardware devices. Right now, our average is more like 20 devices per store. They're putting mobile devices into every associate’s hand.”

Giving retail associates immediate access to business data in the store is critical, say Tippets. This includes data about a specific customer’s buying habits.

“There's a huge push right now on the customer experience, and the people who are forward looking understand that the first place to work on the customer experience is the employee,” said Tippets. “When I walk into the store as a consumer, what does the employee do or not do for me?”

Tippets says there are three things that associates look for when they are being engaged: recognizing performance, giving them a path forward to promotion, and communication. All of these areas could be enhanced through new technologies.

“I come into my shift [as a retail associate] and there are some video recordings from the CEO, such as the top goals of this week.” said Tippets. “And he or she explains how the fact that I do my job, which is keeping this area of the store stocked, translates to a better store, translates to a better region, and translates to a better company performance.”

Overall, NRF 2019 was an informative opportunity for retailers to learn about the latest trends, technologies, and challenges in the industry. Over 35,000 attendees visited the Javits Center in New York for the event on January 13-15. Enterprises outside of the retail industry should learn from NRF 2019 about the importance of empowering employees with the right technologies and apps.