What is ahead for the U.S. retail industry in 2019

By Guest author Susan Redar, Editor from STORES’ Media, an NRF U.S. National Retail Federation magazine

It is that time of year again — time to put on the prognosticator hat and take a stab at foreseeing what is ahead for the retail industry in the coming year

There are a few things that seem certain: Customer expectations never stand still — and just to up the ante — they are also not consistent.

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Disruption is one constant, but that has been true of the retail industry for years. We live in an age of immediacy, and it has prompted rethinking every single part of the business. Retailers can expect more of the same for the next 12 months, even the next three years.

At the risk of being wide of the mark — or maybe just off by a smidge — here are STORES’ predictions for the retail industry in 2019.

Retailers will go ‘all in’ on artificial intelligence

AI and machine learning no longer fall under the heading of emerging technologies. Intelligence-enabled platforms and systems are now fully capable of delivering customer-centric insights, helping retailers tackle inventory woes and providing data to support optimal pricing strategies. If retailers do not plan to go “all in,” there’s a good chance they’ll find themselves on the outs with consumers who have come to expect a more personalized experience.

Another reason the rush to AI and machine learning will continue to ramp up: 2019 promises a flurry of new start- ups hawking systems that mesh data from weather, econometrics, competitors’ promotions and forecasts of future buying patterns. It is not a moment too soon. Trendwatching reports consumers will expect retail brands to use new forms of data to offer personalization that proves they know customers better than customers know themselves.

Jason Goldberg, who leads the commerce and content practice at SapientRazorfish and hosts The Jason & Scot Show podcast about ecommerce news, predicts machine learning will become more realised in 2019, and its impact will be transformative. “Potentially, machine learning is a bigger disruption of our industry even than digital was,” Goldberg says. “And I don’t say that lightly.”

He says because AI is a “big, broad, amorphous thing,” it’s not necessarily something companies can just implement or turn on; it’s a whole suite of tactics they can use to create better customer experiences and save time.

Advances in AI are proving their return on investment, but Bryan Gildenberg, chief knowledge officer at Kantar Consulting, insists the focus needs to be on problem-solving. “AI takes the sheer abundance of data that retailers have amassed and, using sophisticated algorithms, can improve inventory quality and increase product recommendations,” he says.

“But the first order of business has to be problem-solving. How will it be used to make better decisions? What’s the specific use case?” he asks rhetorically. “Investments in AI and machine learning can result in increased revenue and better customer experiences, but the solutions adopted need to be based on each retailers’ specific strengths, weakness and customer objectives.”

Voice-recognition technology spurs conversation, but monetization remains uncharted territory

Being able to shop via Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa device is useful — maybe even fun. But, voice-enabled shopping starts to plateau when shopping moves much beyond replenishment items or products people use routinely. Would a shopper use Google Assistant to buy a dress for a friend’s wedding?

That is not to say the technology isn’t valuable — or even here to stay. In fact, retailers including Target have integrated with Google Assistant, experimenting earlier this year with coupons. What’s the next step? It is clear consumers have more of an appetite for voice than playing music and checking the weather, but will they rely on this technology to connect with their pharmacist? With the jury still out on ROI, it remains impractical for retailers to develop their own devices with proprietary, AI-driven shopping assistants.

Google recently added Best Buy, Sephora and Nike to the growing list of retailers from which shoppers can purchase directly through Google’s Shopping Actions service, a unified shopping cart capability integrating Google Assistant, Google Express and its search capabilities. John McAteer, vice president of U.S. sales and operations for Google Retail and Tech, reports transactions are up 14 percent and is looking ahead to a bigger bump in 2019.

“We’re still early stages here and sometimes the conversation is clunky, but the notion of voice in and voice back is resonating with consumers and they’re shopping more with the retailers who make this an option,” McAteer says. “It comes back to determining what is the right consumer experience.”

Meanwhile, voice-recognition is gaining momentum as a mobile interface, slowly upending traditional search. “The current search paradigm is awkward. When shoppers are in a store they can be specific about what they’re looking for,” says Dan Mitchell, director of the global retail practice at SAS Institute Inc. “Using voice to search from a mobile device moves closer to replicating that experience. It’s possible we’re approaching a turning point for the acceptance of voice for mobile and online search — particularly as machine learning gets better and better.”

Chatbots and digital assistants continue to be a valuable resource for brands that want shoppers to feel as though they are being “physically” assisted while shopping online. BRP Consulting’s 2018 Customer Experience/Unified Commerce Survey found 7 % of retailers are currently using AI as digital assistants and chatbots; another 48 % plan to implement this capability within three years.

Numerous retailers are using chatbots as a customer service tool and for some it has become a personal shopping assistant. The downside: Customers do not always know they are communicating with a chatbot, thus compromising transparency. Others worry how the information shared is managed.

‘Storefront as a service’ will take its place in the retail lexicon as shared experiences become more engrained.

Several concepts are bubbling up that blend retail and work space — enough of them, in fact, that it appears to be more than just a fad.

Re: Store will open its first store in San Francisco in the spring. Founded by Selene Cruz, the start-up project has described its mission as looking to help online-only brands secure both co-working space and their first physical storefront. Cruz came up with the idea after launching a direct-to-consumer handbag brand and facing multiple challenges ranging from storing inventory to finding physical space that would allow her to meet shoppers’ requests to touch and feel the bags.

Re: Store has outlined a monthly pay structure of USD 350 plus a commission of 20 % for emerging brands. The entrepreneurs can add co-working space for USD 550; another USD 850 earns brands a storefront.

Nikki Baird, vice president of retail innovation with Aptos, believes the concept has value. “Digital natives can grow their business to a point, but it’s difficult to scale without a physical presence. It basically takes the infrastructure as a service to another level by including physical retail space, office space, etc.”

WeWork opened its first retail location, dubbed WeMrkt, in New York City this summer and is planning an ambitious, nationwide expansion, eyeing 500 WeMrkt stores over the next few years. WeWork executives have shared the desire to build a retail brand around its community ethos with stores selling products geared to the needs of the people who work out of its locations. WeWork is betting that companies interested in supporting one another will buy each other’s products.

Baird mentions several others including New York City-based Bulletin, which builds stores fully stocked with female-run brands and donates 10 percent of store proceeds to Planned Parenthood. She also is keeping tabs on Neighborhood Goods, with its concept in Plano, Texas. It does not have a co-working element, but helping digital brands transition to the physical world is a key.

“Ultimately, brands need foot traffic, so that’s a win,” Baird says, “and shared experiences are being embraced by shoppers across the spectrum.”

Health and wellness objections are among the top initiatives retailers outline for 2019

It comes as no surprise to those paying close attention to news over the last six months. Venerable consumer business Weight Watchers announced in the fall that it was changing its name to WW to retool itself as a wellness organization that goes beyond weight loss. The new moniker is also a nod to the company’s updated tagline, “Wellness that works.”

It is the beginning of what promises to be a flurry of moves by retailers looking to snag a bigger share of the booming health and wellness market. At NRF’s Shop.org conference in September, CVS Pharmacy President Kevin Hourican said the company had built a software tool powered by data that can be used as a resource for pharmacists looking to provide savings options in the form of either generic substitutions or therapeutic alternatives. CVS also is preparing to launch a new, icon-based prescription labelling and scheduling system, and it is piloting “Beauty in Real Life,” an elevated experience focused on providing new products and services.

Walgreens, meanwhile, has partnered with skincare products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to create an online diagnostic tool to help shoppers address specific skin conditions.

Supermarket retailers are equally engaged. The Kroger Co. created a mobile app called OptUP that makes it easier to shop for healthy products. When shoppers scan a nutrition label, the app synthesizes all the nutrition information and assigns the food a score, making it easy to compare foods and make healthy choices.

Numerous chains including Hy-Vee, Giant Foods and Albertson’s are rolling out smaller footprint stores focused exclusively on healthier food options. And the number of apps aimed at helping shoppers to do a better job of tracking health and wellness has expanded exponentially and will continue to explode over the next 12 months.

Keep a watchful eye on the cannabis industry. As it continues to professionalize and legalize, this segment is projected to grow 220 percent globally in 2019 alone.

The linchpin of retail success in 2019 will be supply chain efficiency and expertise fuelled by AI.

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