The National Retail Federation held its annual NRF 2022 conference this week, and the tech industry was there in force. Qualcomm, for example, held a briefing ahead of the event to celebrate its third year of attendance where it outlined how it plans to build its IoT business with a large focus on retail customers. And at the conference itself, Twilio, Intel, Nvidia, PTC, Comcast, and scores of data analytics companies demonstrated how they’re using technology to make the physical retail experience as responsive and trackable as digital shopping.
Edge computing, targeted advertising, and computer vision solutions were made available, with various big tech companies showcasing partnerships that help retailers track shopping carts while also using them to deliver targeted ads, partnerships that leverage computer vision for loss prevention — even partnerships dedicated to dynamic pricing and truly accurate inventory management.
The tech industry has been wooing the retail industry for a decade, but the shift from e-commerce and providing cloud services to more IoT-enabled products has been happening for the last five years. And with the pandemic, the retail industry is wrestling with conflicting trends, such as more online shopping leading to the need to converge e-commerce and physical inventory, and in-person shoppers wanting to spend less time in physical places touching things. A rise in the number of thefts and continued pressure on margins are also leading some groceries, drugstores, and other shops to look at new loss prevention techniques and ways to make money on advertising or consumer data, respectively.
But retailers are willing to spend money, and they are getting more comfortable with technology. Last year, a Microsoft survey of retailers found that 92% were already investing in IoT either in production or as a pilot project. Most of the use cases dealt with increasing automation and making sure those retailers understood where their inventory was located and what was in it. (See chart below)
Last year, Microsoft pledged $5 billion for retail IoT and the intelligent edge by 2022. Not to be outdone, Qualcomm this year conducted a press event with Art Miller, its global head of IoT, who said that he’s been working for the last three years on partnerships and technology to make Qualcomm a contender in retail IoT. He spent almost an hour laying out an array of scenarios, including a smart shopping cart partnership with edge computing hub maker Veea and advertising partner iFREE Group that uses Qualcomm technology to track smart shopping carts as they roam a store delivering targeted advertising and discounts.
Having a shopping cart blaring ads at me while I shop sounds like a nightmare, and other visions for IoT in retail give me pause, too. For example, Qualcomm has shown off cameras that use computer vision and algorithms running locally to assign demographic data to shoppers. While talking to vendors of computer vision tech for retailers, whether it is Qualcomm, Intel, or Nvidia, will generate a lot of statements about helping to make the consumer experience more enjoyable, dig a little deeper and most of the computer vision tech seems to be largely dedicated to advertising, loss prevention, or automated checkout.
And from my perspective as a shopper, only the automated checkout offers me much convenience. To be sure, automated checkout options were very much on display and in demand at the show, with solutions from GRUBBRR and Caper. I imagine many of us will encounter automated checkout in the next two years if we haven’t already.
The show also had some traditional tech tropes for retailers, including smart mirrors and new digital signage technology that could link shoppers’ social media accounts to signs in the store. This year also introduced shopping in the metaverse and a greater emphasis on sustainability. I’d like to hear more about that, but in the near term, the big story will be better data integration between online and offline inventories and sensor-based ways to track people in stores and deliver more ads to them.