The Stationers Guild

National Retail Federation: The Changing Face of Retailing

At the suggestion of a techie relative – who can still hold a civilized conversation without consulting his smart phone every 30 seconds – I decided to “invite” myself to the National Retail Federation’s 106th exhibition at the Javits Center.

Like most of the events at the Javits Center, this “high tech” exhibition was painfully disorganized. Nevertheless, there were several attractive young women standing around holding placards suggesting they might have the answers to a simple question like “Am I standing in the right line to register for the National Retail Federation Exhibition?” They too didn’t have a clue, but one nice woman offered to hold my place in the queue (incidentally, the wrong one) while I searched for a restroom. I wanted to reciprocate her kindness with a Starbucks coffee, but that queue was also a 45 minutes wait. Now I don’t know about you, but anyone who waits 45 minutes in line for a bloody coffee must surely drink decaf.

In any event, I did manage to get into the exhibition hall after waiting in two lines for the better part of an hour and a half, which is more than I can say for the poor suits that had a longer wait for their “express pass” badge. In any event, I suggest that the Javits Center organizers engage Oracle, IBM or Microsoft to help streamline the process rather than simply increase the prices of the largely inedible food at the food halls (a tuna fish sandwich is now $9.50). Enough complaining.

This show is for the heavy hitters of retailing. In one of the sideshows, former President Bill Clinton was telling retailers that “last year was pretty good so you guys should be smiling.” I suppose his audience was Walmart, McDonalds, Target, Pizza Hut and some of the other Big Box stores and food chains. I am not so sure this is true for main street retailing, but then the vendors at this exhibition are not pitching to Mom and Pop retailers. Found below are just a few things that caught my attention:

  • Photo and Heat Imaging Traffic Patterns: Several vendors were offering an array of fascinating tools to track consumer behavior in stores. For instance, you could “track” yourself and others with sophisticated image reading devices as you moved through a booth or store. Computer software would then create a heat map to determine the level of interest in particular areas of the store and consumer traffic patterns. The equipment is so sophisticated that it will also capture whether you are carrying a cellphone or other digital device. Pretty scary. Maybe Homeland Security would be interested.
  • There were several exhibits of digital kiosks whereby you would stand in front of a video camera which would project images in front of you (clothes items) and you could digitally dress yourself by making hand prompts. One gentleman in a suit ended up dressed in a nice yellow shirt and blue pants. Pretty amazing if digital dressing is your thing. Must be on every cross-dressers wish list.
  • A similar touch panel prompted you to make a pizza with Wolfgang Puck muttering instructions. I didn’t stick around long enough to see anyone actually eat a digital pizza, since clearly no one was able to make one to Wolfgang’s satisfaction. Most of the wannabee Top Chefs failed and were then encouraged to buy his packaged variety.
  • I saw a “Free” application which plugs into your computer and reads your inventory position from your POS and automatically posts your items for sale on eBay. As long as you have the “right” POS system, you can be selling online in no time with no website.
  • One of my favorite exhibits was digital signage. In effect, you can create great digital messages for potential clients and easily customize the program to receive local feeds (i.e. the weather, local news). This is a very sophisticated way (and relatively inexpensive) to exhibit products and stationery sale promotions which, in my opinion, are far more effective than traditional storefront merchandising.

I will be discussing some of these trends later on, but retailing is changing and changing rapidly. We all need to wake up, since the Evil Empire is just around the corner and may already be in your backyard.

Richard W. May
Therese Saint Clair

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