Déjà Vu at NRF’s Big Show 2018

By Mark Roberti

As in years past, exhibitors were touting solutions that require retailers to adopt RFID before they will be effective.

One year, it was big data. Next, it was video analytics. Then, it was omnichannel. Then, it was customer experience. Each year, a buzzword spreads at the National Retail Foundation (NRF)'s Big Show event, and many exhibitors claim to have the perfect solution. This year, everyone was talking up artificial intelligence (AI). It seemed half the exhibitors present were offering AI solutions for determining what shoppers need and what products should be on the shelves, or were answering customers' questions about it.

There was another theme as well: helping brick-and-mortar retailers compete with online retailers. Digital solutions were everywhere. Apparently, in the future, you will be able to enter a store and use a touch screen to order as if you were at home. I've yet to figure out why a customer wouldn't stay home and use his or her own computer, though. Clearly, I'm missing something.

As I've said in previous years, many of the solutions on offer at Big Show require retailers to install an RFID system first, in order to be useful. For example, one exhibitor was showing off an AI solution that used demographic data about a customer and his or her previous purchases to develop a customized outfit for that shopper. Okay, that's cool. But what happens when the customer touches the "buy" button on the touch screen and it turns out that one or more items is out of stock, or is in stock but can't be located? No doubt, the customer exits the store without buying any of the items.

The same is true of the omnichannel software solution on display at the event, and the supply chain visibility solutions. Omnichannel software is pretty much useless when you don't use RFID because stores without that technology have an inventory accuracy rate of about 65 percent. That means there is a very high probability that a customer who orders a product online and picks it up in-store won't find that product at the store when he or she gets there—and that makes for a very unhappy customer.

One company was offering autonomous delivery robots—small robots on wheels that can deliver an item to a consumer within a 2-mile range. It's an interesting idea, but what if the store nearby doesn't have the item because the inventory is only 65 percent accurate?

Some of these companies are anticipating that RFID will be widely used within a few years, and that will enhance the value of their solutions. At least these companies are aware of RFID and how critical it is to the future of retail. There were also RFID demonstrations in some of the larger booths, such as Intel's, but the attendees and exhibitors at the event mostly seem oblivious to this one crucial fact: the big problem retailers have is that customers enter stores and don't find what they want to buy. That's why they go online more often. Until retailers solve their inventory accuracy problems, nothing else matters.

In next week's column, I will discuss some things I saw and heard in the booths of the companies that offer real RFID solutions.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or the Editor's Note archive.