What was hot (or not) at Retail’s Digital Summit

The National Retail Federation invited me to cover Retail’s Digital Summit, held last month in Dallas. While I listened to speakers, walked the exhibit hall of tech vendors and concurrently followed #shoporg16 on Twitter, I naturally reflected on what I heard in relation to past trends and my expectations.

Here’s what was trending:

Machine learning

Artificial intelligence, broadly, has plenty of potential but it’s machine learning that will advance personalization and chat commerce, and deep learning that will make chat/conversational commerce an increasingly practical solution for many retailers. Banter.ai is an example of what I think is a simple value-add for customers and retailers alike.

Customer service

Chat commerce, especially via SMS (vs. retailer or other apps), was just one topic related to service. But customer service came through in other ways, too. Retailers are using technology to empower store associates, which is driving online sales and fulfillment. I like what Tulip (at Frank + Oak) and Salesfloor (at Saks) are doing and what Newstore is talking about. Predictspring is another winner in this space

Put best by The Bouqs, service (not to mention brand-building) can require putting the long-term relationship before short-term gains, specifically when new customers are predicted to become VIP customers. To justify its strategy, The Bouqs uses net promoter scores and repeat-buyer rates along with talk of top-line revenue growth when presenting to investors.

Sephora’s Johnna Marcus shared how her company uses AR to “put a beauty expert in consumers’ pockets.”

Augmented reality

AR seems to be approaching the tipping point toward mainstream application. While much of the Summit emphasized customer experience, Strata 3D allows retailers to “see” new stores and different merchandising displays before doing buildout or making changes, which could save time and allow experimentation.

On the other hand, in home furnishings (the sector where AR could fastest become a customer expectation), Houzz meets Lowe’s and Home Depot in providing AR visualization tools for decor considerations. And not only has Sephora seen widespread use of its mobile makeup try-on tools, but users are then heading to stores (yes, physical ones) to test the final lipstick contenders in person.

Digital support for physical retail

Further evidence of retail’s demand for online-to-offline came from Facebook, which already sells dynamic ads showing local inventory and acknowledged there’s much more they can build into this product. Similarly, Facebook’s current Offers tab notifies users of promotions saved in it but tomorrow could include geo-targeting.

In a different vein, Rich Relevance now allows customers inside a retail store to open up that retailer’s web site (again, not just mobile app) and automatically see locally available inventory — and where in the store it’s located — as the first search results. Depending on how you look at it, maybe that’s offline-to-online and not the other way around.

Channel convergence

This question mark leads to my biggest observation, which is that it’s hard to separate all of the above from a bigger and broader theme, which is channel convergence (and was the title of a talk I gave a year ago).

Thinking about less-addressed topics, I was happy to see less concern about marketing attribution and ROI, which is only made more difficult as commerce channels converge. That said, Facebook’s cross-device ROAS (return on advertising spending) report now includes store visits and store purchases, and it’s person-based rather than cookie-based. Other topics that seemed to get less air time were email marketing and the omnichannel buzzword.


Andrea Wasserman is a former retail executive who is now a retail and tech consultant through her firm, Captain Customer, where she blogs about these topics. You can also find her on Twitter.