Fact And Fiction

3/1/2012

If you're looking for a reason to be optimistic about the economy, the large and engaged crowds at the NRF show certainly provided one.

A visit to the recent NRF show revealed which technologies have real-world applicability.

Having recently attended the National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual show at the Javits Center in New York, I was surprised — pleasantly so — by the highly worthwhile trends and ideas with which I came away.

While the start of my visit to the show was marred by long wait-times at the registration, bag check and concession areas, one of the prime reasons for the delays was the significant increase in attendance at the show. Indeed, if you're looking for a reason to be optimistic about the economy, the large and engaged crowds I witnessed certainly provided one. The sessions were mostly standing room only, and certain key booths like IBM and Motorola were packed with visitors. It was almost as if everyone who hadn't been to a trade show since the pre-economic-crisis days of 2007 all woke up at once and decided that the time to re-engage was now.

The further good news was that there weren't only plenty of attendees, but also lots of interesting things to see. I found a wide variety of new and interesting technologies, many of which were highly applicable in the short term. In fact, the technology offerings could be neatly divided into two camps: a bunch of technology that really looked more like science fiction than anything practical, and another set of technology that can be readily installed and immediately used.

The Intel booth was a leading provider of science fiction. The company bragged that everything on display was actually in use — a claim made because, in prior years, Intel had been criticized for just showing demos. The reality, however, is that getting a machine tested in a store or two really doesn't provide any information on mass viability.

Intel showed a kiosk it designed for a major customer that can serve as both a vending machine and a sampling distribution point. While the machine was amazing in its design and functionality, I felt the procedures required to use it were so complex and convoluted, and the cost of building it so high, that I'm virtually certain it can never be deployed successfully on a mass scale. It's a great example of the kind of technology that's entertaining, just like the latest "Mission: Impossible" movie, but just as likely to happen in reality as the plot of the movie.

At the other extreme, Verifone showed a new unit that came closest to my model of technology: innovative but simple enough to be practical to deploy, and totally focused on solving a critical problem. The company has developed an in-store unit that links a Verifone payment unit with a kiosk Web browser set to surf the site of the participating retailer. In this way, if you go to a shoe retailer and find a shoe style that you love, but that you want in a size or color that's not currently in stock in the store, you can, with just a few clicks, discover whether the size and color you want is in stock in the warehouse, and if it is, order it, pay for it and print out a receipt that lets you know when you can expect it to arrive on your doorstep.

Verifone addressed a real problem — out-of-stocks — and addressed it by providing a unit that allows the retailer to close the sale with the consumer even if the exact item needed isn't in the store. This is a simple but powerful application, one that won't cost too much to install, and that should generate significant sales and profits quickly.

All told, the NRF show was a great experience. I saw some really interesting technology — even though might not believe in all of it — and it helped get my creative juices flowing again.

David Diamond is an independent consultant to leading retailers, manufacturers and service providers in the grocery industry. He can be reached at [email protected].

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