Taking A Peek Into The Retail Storefront Of Tomorrow

The retail technology world of 2007 is absolutely in transition and nowhere is that more clear than here at the industry's largest gathering, the National Retail Federation's tradeshow and conference.

There are primarily two transitions. The first is an in-store transition, from a world where technology was virtually all behind-the-scenes as far as consumers were concerned to one where the bits-and-bytes are what the industry coyle dubs customer-facing.

That's been true for a year or two. What's happening this year is the next logical step, where instead of consumers seeing the technology passively?such as walking by a digital commercial on what had been an ordinary pillar or noticing that a Point-of-Sale unit is a lot faster than the older electronic cash registers?they are required to actively participate or, more frightening for retailers, opt to actively participate.

The active participations run from deciding to use a self-checkout system, accepting an RFID contactless payment card or asking a kiosk for directional or price-lookup help to seeking permission to E-mail product specials, use a customer's cellphone for payment/communication and even asking them to scan two-dimensional barcodes with their phone's camera to bring up deep Web pages.

The second transition is movement from large global retailers that have distinct online and offline operations into merchants with a smooth melding of offline and online. The hurdles for that change are about 20 percent technological (merging and reconciling the databases between storefront and virtual) and 80 percent psychological (getting senior management to truly buy into combining both efforts and to support that with business decisions including commission arrangements and organizational chart issues.

At the show here this week, product announcements and panel presentations gave strong emphasis to building the infrastructure to support a world where much of the equipment will be bought and brought by?and much of the keystrokes will be typed by?consumers.

PayByTouch, for example, was showing new biometric systems that allow for products to be scanned by consumers and that prints out customized coupons for the customers while they are still in the aisle.

Probably the most surreal exhibit was from a consulting firm called IconNicholson. Their theoretical future look?akin to something one would expect to visit at Disney's EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of the Future)?showed the ultimate merger of online and offline.

It features video cameras in-store, where customers can broadcast live images of themselves trying on clothing and friends (and strangers) can view the images on a Web site and instant message comments back. The comments are all integrated into a display in the store, meaning the store could theoretically learn from the comments as well.

"The technologies behind social retailing tap two major industry trends that will drive change into our clients' businesses for the next several years," said Christopher Enright, Chief Technology Officer for IconNicholson. "Near-field Communication and Web 2.0 together show how much impact the emerging Internet of objects will have on everyday life."

Another company with a similar approach was Avorcor, although they prefer the phrase "collaborative selling" as opposed to "social retailing." Avorcor (of Sterling, Va.) at the show partnered with Gamut Systems (of Chantilly, Va.) to show something called a Dressing Room Buy.

?Collaborative selling is the convergence of online and face-to-face selling experiences,? said Avorcor CEO JP Morgenthal. ?It?s the freedom to explore all the store has to offer from a single access point, such as the dressing room, and then supplement with human assistance automatically when the consumers are ready to touch, see, try on, etc., based on the user's online choices."

Back to the more mundane meat-and-potatoes of retail technology, there were plenty of announcements of new POS units, including slightly updated models from IBM, Dell and HP and a mildly new version of a POS operating system from Microsoft.

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