The NRF Big Show 2020 conference review

Retail’s Big Show, organised by the NRF, rolled into New York City last week, showcasing the latest technologies in the sector.

Among the most competitive areas were those involving the management of inventory, with a number of providers presenting differing solutions relying on computer vision technology and algorithms to determine and manage stock levels on the shelf.

Pensa Systems had its drones flying around stores taking video footage, complemented by scanning capabilities via a mobile phone app that give a richer picture of the inventory.

It competes with Bossanova, that has its tall robots currently roaming the aisles of 1,000 Walmart stores in the US, with other deployments on the cards as retailers recognise the vast amounts of sales being lost to out-of-stocks.

Red McKay, global vice president of sales at Bossanova, said the technology gives 90 per cent accuracy for on-shelf availability - compared with only 40 to 60 per cent when the task is undertaken by people. “It can also check the visuals against the recorded inventory and find any mismatches,” he said, adding that artificial intelligence (AI) is also used to learn the product labels.

To expand its capabilities, McKay said the technology is to also set be placed in other forms such as drones and much smaller robots that can operate in compact stores.

Another player in this field is Trigo, which pushes the visuals from ceiling cameras through its algorithms to map the store in 3D co-ordinates. As well as managing inventory levels, this solution can track the movement of customers and products in-store, delivering a cashier-free solution similar to that of Amazon Go, but at less cost, according to the company. Tesco is among the companies undertaking low-key trials with Trigo before potential implementation.

The introduction of ever smarter technology into stores was also on the mind of Kevin Johnson, chief executive of Starbucks, who revealed how the company has been working with Microsoft to develop an AI initiative ‘Deep Brew’. Among its many capabilities is calculating the specific inventory to order for each store, and predicting how many baristas are needed for every 30-minute period in the workforce schedule within each outlet.

A key reason for Deep Brew is that it frees up the baristas to concentrate on delivering a more personal customer experience by empowering them with data and insight. Such empowerment is also part of the reasoning behind IKEA’s decision to implement an AI-powered solution from JDA.

Lars Gunnarsson, digital transformation leader at IKEA Food, said it will help in many ways, including the forecasting and management of the supply chain and reduction of waste by supplying - via a user interface - rich information directly to the team to then act upon.

“It’s super exciting and we’re currently putting the right data points in place for it,” he stated. “AI will support our sustainability and drive less waste – it will be massive for us.”

He added that the solution will enable the company to see the demand curve and coordinate deliveries of food, manage portion numbers, and more intelligently manage labour based on demand. The supervisor will also receive notifications of waste levels on each shift.

Facial recognition was also in evidence this year at NRF, with opportunities weighted against privacy issues that will need to be overcome. KWI was showcasing its joint-venture solution with Clear, whose technology is used in airports, which will most likely be initially used for taking payment in controlled environments like sports stadiums.

On the Intel booth, Hisense and Histone highlighted how its facial recognition technology is used in China, but recognised that elsewhere its use might initially be in large scale restaurants and cafeterias where it can recognise dishes - and portion sizes - and charge customers accordingly.

Sizing is certainly inescapable when it comes to clothing and Texel is looking to solve this issue, and thereby reduce the levels of returns in the industry. Sergey Klimentyev, co-founder of Texel, said its body scanner solution involves customers using their phones to take a front and a side photo, which then provides the necessary 90-plus data points.

He explained that this enables it to deliver as much as 95 per cent of the accuracy of a professional tailor. It will shortly be introduced by Marks & Spencer within its menswear offer, initially for e-commerce and its app before then being used in-store. Texel is also working with John Lewis.

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