by Greg Simpson

Technology in retail

Mar 14, 2019
Emerging TechnologyRetail IndustryStartups

Startups are bringing game-changing technology to the masses. Are you keeping up?

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Credit: Thinkstock

I usually keep this blog “industry agnostic,” talking about technology in a manner that is somewhat indifferent to the different industries impacted by technology. I’ll give examples from various types of industry because I find that technology is making a significant impact on all businesses. You’ve heard this story before, people often quote the historical stories about Blockbuster and Netflix, Kodak and the digital camera, and Uber and the taxi industry.

This week however, I’m at ShopTalk 2019. This is a show that brings together the entire retail ecosystem and its community of innovators. Since all of us interact with retailers, at least at a personal level, I wanted to share some of the things I saw this week as they relate to the advance of technology in retail.

The agenda alone speaks volumes in the impact of technology in retail. Talks include things like “Technologies Enabling New Physical Experiences” and “The Digital Transformation of Traditional Retailers and Brands.” There is an entire track called “Technologies Transforming Retail” which includes sessions on AI and Robotics and Automation.

I think you’ll find this to be the case in your industry as well. The exhibition floor is filled with companies that help turn the tidal wave of data coming at retailers into more personalized experiences. This is a common thread in technology enabled businesses today. How do we take the data we have and: 

  • Figure out if the consumer is really you?
  • Personalize a consumers’ experience when interacting with a retailer’s brand
  • Provide retailers data on how products are performing, enabling things like better inventory management

This isn’t retail specific. Banks want to prevent fraud using data for more secure authentication, retailers want to make it easier to find the product you like, and manufacturers want to help you understand why their product is best for you. We are all starting to understand that if we don’t ride the technology wave, we’ll drown under it.

A study by Oxford Economics commissioned by my company, Synchrony, polled retailers to understand more about how they view the importance of AI in their industry. It found that 92% of retailers view digital technologies as an important part of their strategic plan, and 80% feel that AI will materially change the customer experience online.

My premise is that I don’t think these numbers will change materially for your industry. We did find differences by size of business. Small businesses “54%” cited budget constraints as their biggest impediment to leveraging AI solutions for their business. From what I’ve seen at ShopTalk, there are many companies that want to help solve this problem.

This means that the technology is now reaching a point where small businesses can afford to leverage this technology for their business. Cameras are inexpensive enough to pop up everywhere and can pull in data about what is on your shelf. Machine learning algorithms in the cloud can help you manage your stock outs. In fact, in some cases, the small business that just launched with the latest POS and all cloud-based apps is ahead of the larger company that has many legacy systems and out dated POS systems that can take significant time, money and effort to upgrade and integrate.

Here are some things you need to do to keep up with the digital trends in your industry.


This may sound like old news, but I’m surprised how many companies don’t get out and see what others both inside and outside their industry are doing with technology. You don’t have to limit yourself to similar industries. There are many parallels between industries. Look at how the “sharing” economy crossed from cars to houses between Uber and AirBnB. What paradigm shifts are you missing in your industry?

Engage with startups

Whether it is “startup alley” at a trade show, or meeting with a venture capital company to see who they invested in recently. You need to keep a pulse on what is possible and what trends are occurring in the industry.

Infuse an innovation culture

You need teams to feel empowered to experiment with the latest technology. Not all experiments will pay off, but some will. Try sponsoring a hackathon centered on a promising new technology, you’ll be surprised at how creative your teams can be if you allow them the opportunity to think outside the box. An innovative culture can also help recruit some of the talent you need to execute on these ideas.

Build a talent pipeline

Engage with your favorite universities. They can help you sponsor the hackathon mentioned above. Host a capstone project, build a strong intern program. At my company, we launched our Emerging Technology Center in the research park adjacent to the University of Illinois. This not only allows us to experiment with leading edge technology using student talent, it also ensures we can create a pipeline of talent for full time roles. 

Are you staying on top of what unique experiences startups are making possible in your industry? Are you thinking about your investments in technology with the same urgency as your competitor? Take the time to explore the world of startups. See the art of the possible. You need a game plan for your business to stay ahead of the transformation that is coming to your industry. A quick stop at a gathering of your industry peers, be they retailers, financial services or others may help you see the wave of change coming your way.