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8kms of robots and machine learning – but people stole the show during NRF

At the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York, Ian Jindal trudged 13,000 steps a day with 33,000 visitors and 500 exhibitors. The settling overview is simpler than he expected.

TO SAY that NRF is big and bustling is an understatement. From the hustle of smaller stands to the sheer heft of the multistorey constructions on Millionaires’ Row, the industry put on its display of the best of now, and the hopes for next.

Robots stole the show, with at least five companies trying to bask in the glow of Pepper, the animatronic robot from SoftBank. The charming offspring of a Manga comic and a Magimix is immediately seductive. Think of her as a white and pastel anthropomorph-ish version of Siri: understanding and answering voice questions and sensing RFID triggers, all the while gesticulating with her hands, “sighing” when not directly engaged, and using exceptionally well-observed ‘torso language’ to engage a human interlocutor. Her hands are amazing. Extremely expressive, their sole purpose is communication (they can’t lift or pick). She is a great interface to software that’s essentially an app with additional sensors. Pepper is made possible by the maturing capability of mobiles and apps.

The other success component of Pepper is ‘machine learning’. This is where Big Data (so 2014!) meets the Cloud (hello 2015) and all of a sudden starts running algorithms without waiting for a human being to ‘ask the question’. This is tantamount to a will-o’-the-wisp collecting a department’s spreadsheets, running a pivot table, summarising the report and then telling you the key facts, plus a few questions it had about anomalies… Oh, and then it checked the anomalies and gave you that answer too.

Machine learning is a pivot point from Big Data as grunt and chore to Big Data becoming ‘Big Question and Big Answer’. We see this in Pepper’s excellent language processing (imagine the number of accents amidst the noise at NRF!), but I saw this in predictive merchandising services, reducing the tedium of spreadsheets, reporting and planning and replacing that with improvement suggestions.

The promise of robots at the show – both front-of-house like Pepper, or aisle-crawling stock-checkers – is a world where tedium is reduced and humans are liberated to do the things that humans do well…This leads to the second point: the incredible talent and ability in US store retailing.

I ran a very informal Brown Bag Retail Tour where we wandered to Adidas , Nike , Pirch, Rebecca Minkoff, Sonos and Birchbox. At Adidas, I’d arranged to meet with the GM of the store and so announced myself at the door. Not only did I have the wrong name for the store manager, but they were not expecting a group of 20 damp retailers. Within a heartbeat, the actual assistant GM split us into two groups and led us on a tour of the store. He covered the retail concept, brand values, store architecture and design, history and retail performance. We met with the certified fitness coaches, the staff at the miAdidas customisation stand, the juice bar… all of them – with zero notice – performed with fluency, knowledge and passion. It was an uplifting experience and a testament to US recruiting, staff attitudes and investment in the store. This commercial-meets-strategy-meets-service-meets-brand savvy and polish was everywhere we visited. No superficial ‘have a nice day’ – just staff who would be an asset to any company.

Contrast that with the waitress at a trendy new Welsh restaurant in Brooklyn who clearly resented having to be at work. When I mentioned that the Gwaun Valley Trout came from an area I knew well, she rebutted my comment, sourly noting that it wasn’t really from Wales, that they couldn’t import any food and so it was just normal food labelled in a Welsh way. After a day’s retail tour, seeing the very best of our industry, it was a bit of a blow that my laver bread and seaweed Martini had not come from the old country, mixed by bards singing Cwm Rhondda.

Machine learning makes something wonderful from cloud, big data and algorithms. Robots blend voice and mobile with a physical presence. Authentic and considered brands are illuminated by passionate staff. These are the future of retail, but it will not save businesses who do not invest in the very best staff.

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