In-store technology is hot, but IT support could hinder implementation

          Laura Heller

Retail technology is among the hottest topics in the tech world, but is still in its infancy. This was made exceedingly clear after a recent trip to SXSW Interactive, where sessions and presentations about retail technology in general, and mobile retail in particular, took center stage.

I was fortunate to moderate a panel on mobile technology and retail during the interactive portion of the two-week event. While the film and music sections of SXSW tend to be more glamorous, the Interactive component features new technology and in-store initiatives that all retailers should take note of.

And retailers did. Representatives from Gap, Neiman Marcus, Target, Whole Foods and Kate Spade sat on panels. Attendees from retailers large and small, including Kroger, sat in audiences and posed thoughtful questions to speakers.

Technology, specifically interactive technology, was the focus.

There were presentations and displays of augmented reality already in use that allows shoppers to hold up a box of Legos, for example, to discover the products inside and the many things that can be built.

Augmented reality company and SXSW presenter Metaio noted that Mitsubishi enjoyed a $60 million increase in sales in the first year following implementation of a program that allows shoppers to better visualize and personalize a product before purchasing. Replacing user manuals with more easily searched digital documents accessed through a smartphone also provides new ways to interact with customers post-sale.

In-store scenarios using new technology were another focus at SXSW. Beacons remain a big topic, but there were also presentations on digital watermarking by Shazaam and Mood Media that transmitted information to shoppers via otherwise silent audio signals that only smartphones (and dogs) can hear. A promising new entry into the proximity market that uses magnetic positioning to locate objects with a smartphone was also introduced.

All of these require some kind of IT support, and it's here that improvements to the store environment often hit a speed bump. But the most successful retailers are involving IT early in the process, while new programs are still in the research and development stage.

Neiman Marcus has managed to innovate, in part, because the new initiatives remain under the supervision of a technology team. "The app lives in Tech/Dev, we haven't officially carved our marketing budget," said Michelle DeVore, director of e-commerce marketing.

But too often, noted panelists, IT is brought in after the fact to implement a plan or strategy created by marketing. This is a recipe for disaster. If a CIO is not involved in the planning stages, there's no amount of CMO muscle that can successfully implement, support and update that program.

So while there was much discussion about new and future in-store technologies, much of it was focused on a limited-run test, or some pie in the sky possibilities.

Because without the tech support, these new realities are just dreams. -Laura