From virtual reality to a robot named Pepper, these tech tools could change the face of retail

Kroger exec: There are risks to more gadgets

NEW YORK - Tech tools were abundant at the National Retail Federation 2016 Big Show in New York this week, but none of them had a more crowded dance card than Pepper, a store-associate robot with a knack for finding clothes that flatter the customer.

“The single-color design will create an unbroken line, so this is a dress that will make you look taller and slimmer at the same time,” Pepper opined in one demonstration about a white dress waved in front of her bar-code scanner.

The robot is a less threatening way for women to get styling advice based on their body shape, said Mike Rogero, chief financial officer of Robot Lab, a San Francisco-based startup.

The company worked with the German plus-sized retailer Ulla Popken to develop an app that helps shoppers find the right look by asking questions about how they want their body to look in clothing.

“With the app there’s no judgment, it’s just tell me how you would like to appear and I’ll find clothes that do that for you,” Rogero said. “Using the robot is the same thing. It’s very clear there’s no judgment. She’s just data and she’s there to help you.”

Pepper Robot was easily the most popular tech tool in the NRF iLab, a back corner of the convention hall where a 3D printer and virtual-reality goggles were also on display. Samsung took visitors on a 360-degree dive into nature, using cell-phone video shot from a camera strapped to the bottom of a helicopter in flight. The motion feels so real that Samsung makes users sit down before donning the goggles.

“There’s a lot of interest in the retail industry for this,” said John McAndrews, technical account manager for Samsung Electronics America. “There’s a large fast-food company that created an application that allowed potential franchisees to take a 360 virtual tour and see how it’s going to be laid out.”

Another NRF vendor, Valtech, helped a kitchen products company design virtual-reality cooking demonstrations to help customers visualize how it performs in action.

Other tech tools were not so much designed to guide the customer as inspect and analyze them. Several vendors had people-counting systems on display, using everything from in-store thermal readings to facial-recognition software (including one that correctly guessed I was an “adult male Caucasian” as I approached it).

Digital shelf technology – similar to what Kroger is testing in some of its Cincinnati stores - was on display by Cloverleaf Media, LLC, a California company that is designing a Valentine’s Day test for Macy’s.

“We’re going to be putting together a few walls for them as well as a few shelves,” said Skyler Ramos, a Cloverleaf sales engineer. “It’s going to be in the Fitbit area for Macy’s Herald Square.”

The Cloverleaf screens are bigger and brighter than the units Kroger has been testing at a Cold Spring, Kentucky store. Ramos said they’ve demonstrated a 9 percent sales lift in marketing tests conducted so far.

They also have the capability to do proximity messaging, which uses beacons to track approaching cell phones and send marketing messages to the shopper holding that device.

Kroger has that capability in its digital shelf units, but is guarding against “the risk of falling into the trap of more gadgets, more technology,” said Yael Cosset, chief commercial officer for 84.51, the data-mining firm that Kroger purchased from Dunnhumby USA last April. In a Jan. 19 presentation at NRF, Cosset said Kroger wants to make sure it doesn’t make grocery shopping a more unpleasant experience by getting too intrusive with technology.

“If you go to Times Square and look around, that’s what we need to avoid, the bombarding of bright lights any time of the day with random messages,” he said. “We’re really testing the impact on the customer experience.”

 

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