Retail’s Big Show, also known as NRF, rolled into New York for what is the big annual retail technology jamboree, which this year brought together 37,000 people – including 16,000 retailers from 3,500 different companies.

There is no disputing the fact that it is an extremely big show and that as such it arguably has something for everybody. But each year there are some more obvious trends and themes that underpin the event. Among them this year – yet again – was the digital transformation piece.

There is certainly an increasingly widespread understanding that without building out the base infrastructure that integrates retailers’ various channels then there is no such thing as the single view of inventory or of customers. And without this then very little of what excites retailers – and was in evidence at NRF – is particularly workable.

This message was very much conveyed by Jeremy King, CTO of Walmart, who gave a wide ranging interview on the main stage that highlighted where the US-based firm was spending its almost $12 billion (in 2018) of IT budget. He listed robotics, machine learning, blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), personalisation and virtual reality but he also made clear that these sit upon a platform that was created from its digital transformation.

Ahead of my NRF trip this year I was predicting that voice would again play a big feature. But I was very wrong and found such solutions pretty thin on the ground. What arguably replaced them was visual computing. The use of cameras has become ubiquitous and the ability to use AI and machine learning to gain insights is a major line of development for retailers.

The Intel booth was showcasing a variety of solutions that involved cameras in vending machines to recognise the goods removed from its selves (JD.com), drones that took video footage of inventory and built up planograms (Pensa), and cameras utilising facial recognition to determine customer’s reactions to products on the shelves that then leads to specific content being displayed on accompanying digital screens (Mood Media).

Shelves and inventory were certainly a recurring them – whether they involved cameras or electronic shelf edge labels (DisplayData) or smart shelf solutions (AWM)- as retailers look to both improve their stock availability and reduce the need for labour. It might be a world away from technology but at NRF this year there were a number of references to shortages of labour and that many solutions were being developed to partly address this issue.

This seemed like rather an interesting development to me because the argument last week was that robots would be taking away jobs and this week we now have a scenario where robots are helping fill the roles where there is an increasingly acute shortage of labour.

To this end a number of robots were in evidence (IamRobotics and Badger Technolologies) that have taken things on from being the nice-to-have things to being solutions that have a defined ROI (Return on Investment) baked in.

It was interesting to hear about the massive commitment to rolling out robots within the Giant Food Stores estate that is initially based on the robots’ ability to identify spillages on the shop-floor. Clearly there will be lots more functionality added over time but this initial task has guaranteed ROI and is a labour saving solution to boot.

This initial function is very much based around the physical store. There was a noticeable reevaluation of the store this year at NRF. King at Walmart admitted that the stores had until recently been seen as something that was dying whereas now the opposite view is being taken. They are recognised as a huge advantage over pure-plays and the likes of Amazon.

Brian Cornell, CEO of Target, very much agreed with this sentiment and takes the view that stores are his number one business weapon. But that they need to remain relevant and for that they require constant investment. They also need to sit alongside technology and the non-store channels atop an underlying agile IT infrastructure. Which brings us right back to good old digital transformations.

Glynn Davis, Editor, Retail Insider