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National Retail Federation Expo 2012 took place in NYC this week and highlighted the future of retail. The attendance from solution providers including hardware, software and services providers was highly significant as well as visitors. Following a strong 2011 performance complemented by the holiday sales, the general outlook for retail remains strong, while the pace is expected to be slower than 2011. Nevertheless, NRF is projecting retail industry growth of 3.4% in 2012 to $2.5 trillion.
Members from VDC's Mobile and Wireless Practice spent Monday at the show meeting with a variety of established and emerging vendors. Some of our early impressions include:
Apple exhibits at NRF!
While Apple does not do tradeshows, based on the bevy of iOS devices on display at the show it clearly does not have to. A perhaps not so outrageous prediction of ours for 2012 was Apple's (and specifically iOS's) continued expansion into the retail market. Much of what we saw at NRF certainly confirmed this expectation. From customized sleds that convert the iTouch or iPhone into a secure mobile payment platform to sophisticated business intelligence applications designed for iPads, Apple's presence was widely felt. Secure payment solution providers such as Ingenico and VeriFone introduced their solutions targeting the iOS platform which are capable of processing both credit and debit cards, making them usable globally. While the mobile vendors typically selling into the retail segment continue to debate the Windows vs. Android scenario, Apple/ iOS - with no major push of their own - is establishing itself as a strong retail mobile platform. This only confirms another trend we are tracking in that Chief Marketing Officers are usurping power from traditional IT decision makers when it comes to which mobile solutions to deploy for highly visible and customer facing retail applications.
Are tablets right for retail?
The uptake in tablets appears to be noteworthy given that small form factor devices have traditionally dominated retail. In addition to small form factor vendors like Motorola which has been among the leading vendors in retail with their rugged handheld solutions debuting their ET1 tablet, rugged large form factor vendors such as Panasonic and Motion Computing are also going after the highly promising retail market with their recently introduced rugged tablet solutions. While tablets clearly have a role to play in retail operations - especially for customer facing applications and for solutions such as interactive displays - retailers are still evaluating the true potential of these devices. A recent survey did not perceive store associates equipped with tablets as providing superior service in comparison to those equipped with other mobile computing and communications solutions. While we expect tablets to represent a strong platform for certain retail workers and workflows, 2012 may bring more pilots and evaluations rather than large scale rollouts.
Consumer WiFi, mobile payments and mobile scanning providing more immersive retail experience
Similar to themes we have been discussing throughout 2011, customer engagement is expected to play a huge role in this move. More and more store associates are being equipped with mobile devices in order to lookup customer and product information during their interaction with customers. Most retailers we spoke with also talked about public WiFi for their shoppers to drive a more interactive experience while evaluating next generation presence applications.
Likewise, mobile payments and mobile POS solutions were in high demand during the show as many solution providers introduced their newest products. Not only answering the customer's product-related questions but also completing the transaction at that point of contact is becoming highly valuable for retailers as the traditional in-store environments which may have limited number of POS machines can result with long lines and lost revenue for these organizations. Thus, this enables the associates to not only sell the inventory in a particular store but to also order an out-of-stock product through their online/ mobile site and have it ship directly to the customer or the store based on the customers' preference. Hence, the up-sell and cross-sell opportunities that can be achieved through this interaction are very significant. Tracking how traditional retail POS vendors respond to this trend will be especially interesting as many of these have the most at stake. One interesting solution was from Wincor Nixdorf - a leading brand of traditional POS solutions. They are extending their mobile capabilities with their TP Application Suite, which provides two hardware independent modules: TPiSCAN supports all self-service solutions in the checkout area. TPiSHOP offers the possibility to implement mobile self-scanning either on retailer-owned devices or on individual smartphone of the customer.
Following a dynamic 2011, expectations for retail technology solutions - especially customer facing mobile solutions - remain robust in 2012.