SXSW plays host to the hottest new retail technology

AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW may have begun as a sleepy little music festival, but it has morphed over the years to include not just interactive technology, but interactive technology with specific implications for retailers.

From augmented reality to proximity marketing solutions and inventory management tools, retailers and retail solutions were front and center at SXSW Interactive this week in Austin, Texas.  

The conference is something of a startup accelerator as young companies come to pitch ideas to investors and woo new clients. Last year, Alan Tisch, co-founder and CEO of Spring, arrived in Austin with an idea and left with a list of names that ultimately led to millions of dollars in funding and brand partners that now sell products directly through Instagram via Spring's platform.

He returned this year to sit on the panel titled "Mobile: The Glue Between Online and Physical Retail." And clearly, there is a small army of companies anxious to follow in his footsteps.

The myriad of technologies poised to transform retail include bluetooth smart-enabled devices such as beacons, as well as digital watermarking and intriguing new geomagnetic technology that works through a smartphone's sensors.

But while retail has been transformed by technology, there are still many unanswered questions: What is useful to both stores and shoppers? What constitutes technology for technology's sake? And what is the ROI, if any?

"We're not yet able to calculate the ROI," Carla Dunham, director of marketing at Kate Spade, told attendees. Mobile and social are still more about brand-building than revenue generation. "It's not one size fits all," Tisch said. "There isn't an ROI in every channel."

Neiman Marcus' director of e-commerce marketing, Michelle DeVore, views digital as a platform for brands to tell stories and mobile as a way to build a stronger bond between sales associates and shoppers. The department store chain recently began encouraging associates to create content on social networks and reach out on behalf of the Neiman Marcus brand.

Target (NYSE:TGT), on the other hand, looks first for an unaddressed problem and then to a technology that can solve that problem, whether for the shopper or the store, or both.

"There is a lot of emerging technology, but the first thing we ask is, What problem is it solving for our guests?" said Alan Wizemann, VP of product at and mobile. "We ask that it not introduce anything into their usual behaviors in stores or introduce a new behavior that can be detrimental to the shopping experience."

And while there was lots of technology on display and being discussed at SXSW, there were still few answers. Many retailers have been testing proximity programs and are still in the process of evaluating and/or rolling them out.

SXSW offers a glimpse of the retail future, and at the rate the technology is moving, that future isn't far off.

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