Retailers Look to the Future at the 2021 NRF Big Show

It’s no secret retail has been experiencing challenging times. Even before the COVID pandemic, traditional stores were encountering a sea-change of digitization and delivery services that threatened their legacy business model (and pointed toward new one).

The shut-downs and restrictions as a result of the pandemic have put additional pressure on retailers to evolve, such was the message at “Chapter 1” of the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, a virtual stand-in for what is normally one of the largest trade expos of the year. As a partner for a variety of retail solution providers, we at Rigado enjoy attending the event and observing the technology trends that impact how we bring our own retail capabilities to market. Here, we’ll share a few takeaways and preview the year to come in connected retail experiences.

Stores aren’t going away, but they are changing

One theme that came across over and over was the evolving role of the physical store. Broadly they discuss two groups, first the large chain with national or global coverage and expansive online business and e-commerce platform. For them, in addition to weathering the COVID storm with safety and cleaning precautions, the focus was on better efficiency with in-store operations – and recognizing that the physical store plays an increasingly critical role as a distribution hub for online delivery. This leads to discussions around inventory management and loss prevention which are very traditional retail IoT use cases.

The second group are the small and midsize retailers, and they’re in an interesting position. I enjoyed one session titled How independent retailers will drive the revitalization of cities and communities in 2021. In this case the priority (and optimism) rested on the idea that people are eager to get back out and shop in physical stores after being isolated for so long, and as a way of supporting the local community. Here the focus is on maximizing smaller footprints, for example by using traffic analytics to optimize store layouts and staffing. Furthermore, separating from the online shopping experience by offering innovative in-store technologies such as augmented reality is also gaining momentum.

We’ve certainly seen some retail projects slow down due to the pressures of the pandemic, but it was encouraging to hear the keynote presented describe the gradual re-opening we all hope to see soon, and how much of it will lead to an acceleration of IoT adoption in the physical store.


COVID’s role as Retail’s new “Chief Innovation Officer”

Another recurring theme in the sessions we attended was the challenging – but catalyzing – role that COVID has played as the “Chief Innovation Officer” for many retailers. Beyond the undeniable reality that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ for retailers in 2020, this comparison also highlights the organizational and managerial pressure that 2020’s shifts have caused for retailers.

After all, retail – as an industry sector – brings with it certain obstacles to rapid change. Large distributed workforces with complex training solutions, multi-tier inventory and distribution supply chains, and business operations that often planned months – even quarters – in advance. COVID’s effect in the retail board room and managerial ranks has been that of constant pot-stirrer… forcing executive teams to urgently re-think even their most basic operating assumptions.

Not surprisingly, many of the innovative solutions to COVID’s challenges have come from those front-line workforces – managing safety, adapting schedules, communicating with concerned shoppers – much of that ‘necessity’ and invention fell on the shoulders of the store teams. And companies who have been able to quickly learn from and adapt to those new operating strategies have benefitted.


Restaurants and hospitality: the “other” retailers

Though not a direct segment of the NRF Expo, it’s hard to describe the fast-changing world of retail and not think of the restaurant, hospitality, and travel market. This has been a busy space for Rigado lately, as we recently were named a launch partner of the AWS Travel & Hospitality competency, and in the midst of the pandemic we have had several solution providers build pilots using our restaurant monitoring capabilities. Compliance and loss prevention for perishable foods has been a growing concern for stores of all sizes, and we’ve found that our Swift Kit hits the mark on time-to-market for integrators looking to build something quickly.

The big trend we are seeing in this space is automation of everything: compliance checks on refrigerators, equipment maintenance, and store cleaning & restocking are all top priorities that the right technology can address. These also represent a more immediate proof-of-value, in some cases a small amount of data delivered the right way can result in huge expense reduction.

Stay tuned for more from Rigado on this front, as we are preparing some exciting new product innovations in the restaurant and hospitality segment.


A path for retail solution providers

For application providers and systems integrators, a key message coming out of NRF is “move quickly,” as those ahead of the curve are finding that COVID-related shutdowns are a good time to do infrastructure upgrades and prepare for a smart re-opening.

We’ve made it easier than ever to deploy a PoC or pilot using the Swift Kit for Azure IoT, and some of our partners have even created self-install kits for store managers to setup. Connect with us if you’d like to learn more about Rigado can help accelerate your connected store project!