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  First Thoughts

    Dan Gilmore


    Supply Chain Digest

Jan. 17, 2018

Trip Report: NRF Big Show 2019 in New York City

Most Interesting New Solutions from the National Retail Federation Annual Show and Conference


Ok, I am just back from the National Retail Federation's Big Show at the Javitz Center in New York City.

Despite the turmoil in much of retail right now – or maybe more accurately because of it – this show continues to be red hot. NRF says 38,000 attendees signed up this year, a nice increase from 36,000 in 2018, impressive in this trade show environment. It's a game of survival now for many retailers, and technology is the critical part of the game plan for most.

Gilmore Says....

Will Kroger competitors really want to use technology from their rival? Uniited against common enemy Amazon, Yes.

What do you say?

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There was one overwhelming theme among vendors this year: articial intelligence. It seemed like literally every other booth was touting AI, leading me to say our expert insight columnist Michael Watson was spot on when he predicted at this time last year anything that provided analytics would branded as AI.

That noted, here were my favorite new solutions at the show:


Perhaps the most interesting thing at NRF 2019 was a new Bluetooth chip from an Israel-based semiconductor company Wiliot (note IoT at the end of that name).

At show, Wiliot said the chip is paper-thin and about the size of a postage stamp. It can sense weight and temperature and is able to send encrypted information including an EPC number via Bluetooth a distance of about 3 meters.

Most interestingly, this passive tag somehow pulls energy from ambient Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular signals passing by in the air. Wiliot calls this "re-cycling the radiation around us," in a clever line.

As a result of this approach, the chips can be made very cheaply, allowing far more items to be tagged than today, the company says.

How does this really work? Is such "radiation" reliably available? Just how cheaply can these chips be connected to antennas and sold? I don't have any of those answers yet, but I will soon. At the show, Wiliot also announced $30 million in new funding from Amazon and Samsung.

The folks at Datalogic almost always have something interesting to show among their line of mobile terminals and scanners. At this show, a staff member amazingly took one of the company's Android devices, looking like a smart phone and with an unobtrusive rubber boot around it, and BAM BAM BAM he smashed the thing against a shelf in the booth with a lot of force.
Then he threw it hard to the ground, and stamped on it for good measure.

I have never seen anything like it in this mobile terminal world, and the device seemed to be working just fine after all that.

Datalogic also unveiled a neat wireless charging station for its devices. You still need to bring the devices to a station, but they just sit in a little plastic cubby hole-type slot and charge without metal contacts needed on the device or station, which eliminates the most common area of charging issues historically.

The consultants at Infosys were showing an interesting simulation system for distribution and manufacturing.

Greatly simplifying, you create the simulation environment say for a distribution center. Then the simulation actually plays off transactions and processes against the real test version of WMS, which doesn't know this is all coming from a virtual DC.

The tool can be used for performance testing, trials of new processes or equipment, and scenario analysis. The Infosys consultant, for example, said the tool identified for one client that the new WMS "choked" at a rate of bar code scans likely to be generated by the system – which was very surprising to all and an issue that otherwise probably wouldn't have been realized until after go-live, which would have been a disaster.

Very cool, but this is a tool for high end distribution applications.

For several years I have stopped by the Digimarc booth at NRF. The company developed a unique technology to encode a bar code of almost any type in an image or material invisibly, whether that is the label on a can of soup, a magazine ad, or more recently, an apparel fabric.

Early on Digimarc emphasized how fast POS scanning was with its technology, setting some Guinness world record for scans per minute a few years back, a result of the fact you do not have to worry about the orientation of the code passing by the scanner.

The private label line of northeast grocer Wegmans has been using Digimarcs (they don't like me using that term, preferring Digimarc bar codes, but I like my short hand better) for a few years.

At the show, Digimarc said that both Costco and Walmart were both rolling out the technology for their private label goods. The company also showed its flexibility, where for example a consumer scanning a product with an embedded Digimarc using a pone goes to an informational web site, similar to scanning a QR code (but without needing any space on the label/tag that a QR code requires). But that same hidden bar code acts like a UPS code when passing point of sale. That's neat.

I am sure this market is taking longer to develop than Digimarc and its investors hoped, but it does look as if it is gaining some traction with its interesting technology (first created to deal with counterfeit currencies).

Out-of-stocks continue to be a major issue for retailers, especially in big format stores, which often have the items in the back room but do not know there is a hole on the shelf. Most rely on worker observation and/or indirect POS data (we haven't sold this item in last two hours).

For a number of years, I have said that video analytics are going to solve this problem, and that is even more clear after this year's show.

There are three different approaches, however.

First, in-store cameras aimed at the shelves that identify when a spot goes empty. This is the approach of a company called Trax, Shelfie, the technology arm of Kroger stores, and several others.

The second approach is the use of mobile robots, which periodically roam the aisles, checking for out-of-stocks, planogram compliance, shelf label errors and more. This type of solution was on display from vendors such as Bossa Nova Robotics, Fellow, and others.

The third approach is use of camera-enabled drones that do much the same things as the robots but in a different form factor. Usually at the end of the day or other slow times, the drones traverse the aisles, and generate the same sort of information as the robots.

This approach is being taken by a company called Pensa Systems, who announced at the show that Anheuser-Busch was going to offer the system to its retail customers to improve shelf management, which in trials showed a strong sales uplift.

More on this topic soon from SCDigest.

Also interesting to me was the portfolio of solutions being offered by the new-ish technology division of Kroger. Marketed under the concept of "retail as a service," Kroger was showing a variety of solutions, including a smart (and cool) video shelf display, an inventory video scanning system such as described above, and more, all delivered from the Cloud.

Will Kroger competitors really want to use technology from their rival? That was an issue two years ago, a manager told me. Last year, a lot less resistance, and this year, almost none.

Why? Uniting against the common enemy: Amazon.

In terms of AI, in the Intel booth a company called Cineplex Media showed a video analytic system that captured a vast array of information about store visitors from cameras: gender, age range (both capabilities around for awhile) but now also hair color, glasses or not, attire attribute, add the day's weather, time of day, and more.

Why? So that at the appropriate time, highly personalized, real-time messages and offers created through AI can be delivered in store via signage/displays, mobile apps, etc.

It's brave new world for sure.


I saw a lot more but am out of space. More soon.

Any reactions to Gilmore's trip report? Were you at the show? Anything catch your eye? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button (email) or Feedback section below.

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