Last week, we had the pleasure of attending the 2016 Retail Technology Conference in Atlanta. Held in the bustling Atlanta Convention Center at AmericasMart, Clay started the day by introducing the agenda and speakers overall, and then did a “fireside chat” with CIO Grant Anderson from Living Spaces (a west coast based furniture retailer, We discussed both the fundamental issues facing retail CIOs, as well as the dynamic shifts impacting retailers and retail technology. Grant and I touched on the power that consumers have today with mobile access, and the challenge this power presents to retail IT with not only constant shopping activity, but also the demands for access and feedback that did not exist five years ago. For a retail CIO, this represents a significant shift from a back office focus to ensuring a retailer’s digital presence 24×7 that supports the brand and consumer expectations. All of this necessitating solid foundational technology and supporting architecture with even higher standards for up time, availability, speed, and responsiveness.

There was an impressive array of industry leaders presenting and in attendance – both retailers and solution vendors. Some of the key speakers included:
– Grant Anderson, CIO, Living Spaces
– Nadia Shouraboura, Founder and CEO, Hointer
– Marty Anderson, VP Merchandising Business Process, Belk
– Sam Iosevich, Managing Partner and Founder, Prognos (an Antuit Company)
– Gary Hawkins, CEO, Center for Advancing Retail and Technology (CART)
– Albert Vita, Sr. Director, Digital Store Transformation, The Home Depot
– Scott Emmons, Head of Innovation Lab, Neiman Marcus (among others)

A common theme throughout the day was around innovation, the pace of change, and the implications of transformation. These all had retail IT leaders wavering between excitement…and fear. Fear of new technologies, competitive pressures (what other retailers are doing), consumer expectations, ability to manage all the data (and make it valuable), speed of obsolescence of technology, and deciphering business executives’ desires (as well as, admittedly, addressing the inability of some business execs to even decide what they want).

Here are some takeaways and observations from key sessions:

Data and Analytics

  • Make analytics the heart of your software products to get the greatest benefit. Marty Anderson, Belk’s VP of Merchandising Business Process, spoke about keeping one source for analytics throughout all of your software to make it more impactful and easier to manage. If you make it a requirement, ensure your analytic base should support your roadmap and processes.
  • Drive data all the way through your processes but make sure it stays useful to the business.
  • Carefully think about how to integrate and use the data – solutions are not plug-and-play.
  • The key to making data and analytics work is business adoption and change management.
  • We are moving past “big data” to “mega data” – there was a lot of reference on how data will be utilized and shared with the growth in customer analytics, new innovative technologies and cloud based applications and storage.
  • Understand data’s exponential growth potential. Don’t get caught short sited: as new technology gets implemented and used, this growth will be astounding. Gary Hawkins, CEO for the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology (CART) used examples of the time it took new technologies to get to 50 million users: Telephone 75 years, Radio 38 years, Television 14 years, the Internet 4 years, Facebook 3.5 years, iPhone 3 months, Angry Birds Space app 35 days. Yeah…50 million users in 35 days – for a video game that throws birds around.

Connecting Retail to Innovation

  • Innovation disrupts business. But by all means, disruption shouldn’t be viewed as bad.
  • Don’t just innovate to innovate – make innovation around what the customers want and need. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
  • Use your retail associates as partners. Without adoption from associates your ideas will be challenged and may fail. Make associates researchers and champions of the new technology and ideas.
  • Create an innovation center of excellence.
  • Not everything is going to work…plan for it: maintain that this is part of the process – revise and keep moving forward.
  • Change of thinking: Creating the store of the future is now creating the customer of the future by influencing the way they shop through innovation.

Technology Trends

During networking breaks, the following technology trends were high on the discussion agendas for many participants:

  • Brick and mortar digitized – understanding how customers behave through analytics
  • Virtual Shopping – implications on store layout, fulfillment approaches, store associate roles and responsibilities, and customer experience
  • Active Shoppers – inaudible tags embedded in audio and how this technology may help further understanding of customer shopping behavior – as well as privacy concerns
  • Internet of Things – linking home to shopping
  • 3D Printing – huge growth that will influence all facets of retail from factories and supply chain to the customer 
  • Personalization – location-based technologies linking the shopper with their surroundings

Evaluating New Technology for the Store Experience

During one of the sessions, participants (retailers and solution vendors alike) were challenged with the following questions, relative to new in-store technologies:

  • How does your new idea impact the customer? Does it increase or reduce “friction?”
  • How does your new idea impact the associates? Does it reduce complexity?
  • Does your new idea connect the dots and create a cross channel experience?
  • Does your new idea create value?
  • Does your new idea create a brand impact? Does it fit within the brand?
  • How will your idea be maintained? Does the idea have longevity and sustainability?
  • How will you be able to track and adapt your results?

All in all, we found the Retail Technology Conference to be well run, insightful and a great forum for meeting new faces as well as reconnecting with former colleagues. For certain, the excitement and enthusiasm – albeit not without some valid apprehension – around innovation, new technologies, advancing the use of emergent data and analytics (and the tremendous growth), and how all these change can be effectively managed – was clearly evident. We look forward to next year.

Clay Parnell and Amanda Astrologo