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NRF 2019: Focusing on the Customer Experience


NEW YORK — Artificial intelligence (AI). Frictionless commerce. Wireless connectivity.

Those were just a few of the many technology trends and innovations on view at the National Retail Federation’s NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, held last week at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York.

Beyond all the technology and innovation, though, there’s one thing that’s most important and that’s the customer. “It’s easier than ever in 2019 to adopt technology; there is no shortage of the types of technology. But the more technology we put into place, the further away we get from the customer,” said Future Commerce podcast host and session moderator Phillip Jackson.

Implementing new technology without losing sight of the customer sets convenience store retailer Sheetz Inc. apart from many other large retail chains.

“There are community stores where [employees] know everyone’s names,” said Emily Sheetz, vice president of strategy development and execution for the Altoona, Pa.-based chain.

Speaking at a NRF Show session entitled “Systemic Satisfaction,” Sheetz explained that the 600-store retailer views technology as “a key part of the experience” for its customers. Sheetz works with CGI, a global IT and business consulting services company.

“It’s easy for tech companies to get wrapped up in the technology,” said co-panelist Dave Henderson, president of U.S. operations at CGI. “However, we are much better when we understand what is the right thing to build. We have to be very attuned to the experiences in-store that our customers want to create. If you focus on the human side, the technology will follow.”

During the event, NRF and IBM released their latest joint thought leadership report, The Coming AI Revolution in Retail and Consumer Products. The report, co-developed by IBM’s Institute for Business Value in partnership with NRF, involved a global survey across 23 countries, surveying approximately 2,000 retail industry leaders (between July and September 2018), holding leadership roles across chain/operations, product design, merchandising and customer experience.

Key findings include:

  • 85 percent of retail companies and 79 percent of consumer products companies plan to be using intelligent automation for supply chain planning by 2021;
  • 79 percent of retail and consumer products companies combined expect to be using intelligent automation for customer intelligence by 2021; and
  • Retail and consumer products executives project that intelligent automation capabilities could help increase annual revenue growth by up to 10 percent.

In addition to the global stats, the findings also revealed executive leadership insights from IBM, NRF and its executive council/partners, outlining upcoming predictions on how (and why) intelligent automation will transform the industry — and the top opportunities/challenges in 2019 that retailers, manufacturers and today’s consumers/shoppers will face when adapting to new retail interfaces/capabilities across AI, machine learning, 5G, blockchain and more.

Recession or No Recession?

Business conditions for the new year were much discussed at most of the exhibitor booths Convenience Store News visited during the show. In an economic roundtable open to press only, three economists concurred that business conditions entering 2019 are not quite as rosy as they were entering 2018.

“By no means is the economy falling apart, but I expect slower growth this year,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.

It’s a more complicated economic situation this year, he said, noting that consumer spending and sentiment remain strong, households are not overladen with debt, unemployment is low, wages are rising and oil prices are trending lower. However, he noted a few headwinds: price increases caused by trade wars, slower global growth and cautious businesses taking a wait-and-see approach to investment.

Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG, was a little less optimistic. “2019 is all about recession watch,” she said. “I think we’ll see a recession sometime between the second half of 2019 and 2020.”

Meanwhile, Steven Blitz of TS Lombard, sees optimism in indications that the Fed will ease up on raising interest rates the rest of the year. However, he is concerned about the Chinese economy. “This might be the first U.S. recession that’s made in China,” he noted.

Self-service technology on display.

Technology, Technology & More Technology

Of course, the chief focus of NRF 2019 was on technology, with exhibitors showcasing all kinds of innovative solutions to help retailers operate more efficiently and effectively.

Here’s a selection of what solution providers were showing that has application for the convenience store industry:

Apex Supply Chain Technologies

Apex, noted for its click-and-collect locker solutions, used self-ordering kiosks in its booth this year to power some new food-focused demos. One showed how a movie theater chain call Santikos uses temperature-controlled lockers for serving goodies to its film-going customers. Another illustrated a new technology Apex developed with Little Caesars pizza — a portal they call the Pizza Pickup Station.

Kevin Duggan, senior global communications executive for Apex, pointed out that the Pizza Pickup Station concept could easily be transferred to the convenience store industry.

All of these things save labor that can be redeployed to other job tasks. The order pickup solutions allow customers to skip the line and grab their online order in seconds, while Apex Asset Management Solutions keep critical mobile devices secure and organized, while providing 24/7 visibility to ensure employee accountability and lower operating costs.

Brother Mobile Solutions

Brother’s theme at the show was “Built for Real Work in Retail.”

Brother Mobile Solutions and Brother Business Solutions demonstrated a wide array of high-performance, quick-deploy printing and labeling solutions.

Dave Crist, president of Brother Mobile Solutions, showed off its mobile printing portfolio that includes:

  • Compact and highly-connected Brother RuggedJet printers that enable reliable printing of labels, tags and receipts from handhelds, tablets and smartphones;
  • Easy-to-use wireless mobile printers that are designed to take the inevitable bumps, drops and mishaps that happen in busy retail stores; and
  • A new addition to the RuggedJet portfolio that features Mobile Deploy device management, Android integration, dual radio Wi-Fi/Bluetooth, Apple AirPrint and Apple MFi Bluetooth.


Displaydata, a leader in the design and supply of three-color, graphic electronic shelf labels (ESLs), showcased a new mobile app that features personalized augmented reality (AR) navigation and ESLs that delivery near-real-time promotional and product information. In addition, it exhibited wireless power advancements in its ESLs, demonstrating battery-free ESLs using wireless charging.

“I think this year, people are talking more about the fundamentals than the whizz-bang tech,” noted Displaydata CEO Andrew Dark. “Retailers are looking to generate sales and ROI in a short timeframe. Things like robotics and AI aren’t going to do that.”

Dark noted that Displaydata has more store installations than any other ESL vendor in the United States. ESLs help a retailer increase sales, reduce operational costs, improve pricing strategies, provide an enhanced in-store experience, and free store associates from manual pricing to focus on service and merchandising.

The company has been particularly successful with c-store co-ops in Europe. The electronic tags work especially well with small items that have to be constantly replenished.

GK Software

The addition of a fuel module this year to GK Software’s omnichannel retail solutions is likely to make the technology supplier more relevant to U.S. convenience stores. CEO Michael Jaszczyk told CSNews that the new fuel functionality gives c-store retailers a true omnichannel solution, both at the pump and in-store at the point-of-sale (POS).

“We have the perfect solution for mixed retail with made-to-order foodservice now,” said Jaszczyk.

During 2018, GK Software acquired 12 new direct U.S. customers, including Hy-Vee Inc. with 245 supermarkets, a large thrift shop chain with more than 300 stores nationwide, one of the nation’s largest consumer electronics and appliance retailers, and a nationwide restaurant group operating more than 200 full-service restaurants.

Among GK’s solutions is its Mobile Customer Assistant platform that provides personalized offers, campaigns, mobile payment and scanning via consumers’ smartphones. The mobile solution seamlessly integrates into retailers’ mobile applications and store technology to manage loyalty, promotions, self-scanning and self-pay.

Jaszczck noted that the company was also a leader in frictionless commerce, using a combination of overhead cameras and smart-shelf sensors to allow shoppers to avoid checkout lines.


The Hughes booth was designed to show how the company connects people, enterprises and things via technology, bridging locations and platforms to create consistent and exceptional connected experiences.

“Our suite of HughesOn Managed Services enable the digital foundation distributed enterprises need to transform and meet the expanding demands of their employees and customers with everything from SD-WAN networks and cybersecurity to data analytics and digital signage,” said a spokesperson.

Senior Marketing Director Jeff Bradbury spoke with CSNews about the digital transformation that is changing all retail channels in different ways.

“Whether it’s general retail, petro/convenience, QSR, fast casual or grocery, there are commonalities in all their operations that affect all of them. C-stores in particular have the imperative to become more than what they have been — a change that is driving both internally (decreasing profitability of traditional categories like fuel and cigarettes) and consumers (demand for more fresh food in convenience),” said Bradbury.

With the current mandates to update technology (especially at the pump) for EMV, it makes sense for c-store retailers to address this ECR (efficient consumer response) challenge at the same time, he pointed out.

“You can't fix just one piece. It has to be done holistically,” said Bradbury. “These changes are being driven by new types of shoppers in c-stores: millennials, young families, young dads, etc., who have the expectation that ‘I can get good food and other things I need’ in the same place.”

The complexity of the business has grown exponentially; better technology in other areas of life have raised customer expectations of the type of technology services they expect to find at c-stores, he noted.

JDA Software

At JDA’s booth, showgoers could engage with representatives from one of the company’s most successful retail customers — RaceTrac Petroleum — and learn about its 20-year evolutionary journey leveraging JDA’s industry-leading category management solutions.

RaceTrac has used the JDA Category Management portfolio to take the guesswork out of space and floor planning, and automate and streamline its planogramming process.

JDA’s theme at NRF 2019 was “Predict What’s Next,” underscoring the important role that AI can play in today’s reimagined, modern retail strategies.

Last August, JDA acquired Blue Yonder, a leading AI company focused on retail and supply chain. It scored major successes at such retailers as Morrisons, Otto Group and bonprix. With Blue Yonder, JDA customers across vertical industries will be able to leverage artificial and machine learning intelligence that enables them to better plan, analyze, execute and deliver across their operations through a cognitive, connected supply chain platform.

At the end of the show, JDA released the findings of its 2019 Global Retail C-Suite Viewpoint Survey. Conducted in partnership with Microsoft, the survey highlights the issues and challenges retail CXOs see in today’s evolving retail landscape.

Among the findings, the study revealed that the retail C-suite is struggling with digital transformation challenges — the top two challenges being balancing short-term financial goals against long-term transformation goals (cited by 48 percent) and resistance to change inside the organization (41 percent). As a result, half of respondents are unable to integrate data from multiple sources and 46 percent say the data is of poor quality and untrustworthy.

Executives are also concerned about supporting rising wage rates (54 percent), complying with federal and state laws (35 percent), and hiring in the gig economy (30 percent).

Janam Technologies

As a maker of rugged mobile devices that scan barcodes and communicate wirelessly, Janam Technologies unveiled a high-performance UHF RFID sled for its XT2 series of rugged touch computers.

Janam devices run on standard operating systems, like Android, and can meet multiple needs including counting inventory at the shelf, receiving and shipping.

The new UHF RFID sled turns the company's XT2 and XT2+rugged touch computers into lightweight, rugged, handheld RFID readers.

"Janam's state-of-the-art UHF RFID sled turbo-boosts the capabilities of the XT2 series for organizations that require superior barcode scanning and enterprise-class RFID reading capabilities in the same device," said Janam CEO Harry B. Lerner.

"By providing users with the ability to easily slip an XT2 or XT2+ into the sled or detach those same devices to use them in standalone mode, Janam's newest RFID accessory combines power, performance and flexibility in the most challenging work environments," he added.


Mercatus, a leading provider of digital commerce solutions, announced the launch of AisleOne, a personalization engine that can quickly and easily integrate into retailers’ marketing emails, apps and e-commerce websites to deliver advanced product recommendations and promotions to the right shoppers at the right time.

Early results with a leading grocery retailer demonstrated an increase of up to $13 per basket per week, or $700 more per year per engaged customer, according to Mark Fairhurst, senior director of marketing.

“With AisleOne, the retailer gets a sophisticated suggestion engine that taps into data such as purchase history, dietary preferences and household demographics, and uses machine learning algorithms to serve up relevant content to customers on a one-to-one basis,” said Fairhurst.

NCR Corp.

As innovation remains the key word in retail technology, NCR is working toward the advancement of virtualization and bringing it into the retail store, according Steve O'Toole, general manager of convenience and fuel retail for NCR.

As he explained, there no longer has to be a hardware-software relationship at the point of sale. "There is an amazing amount of efficiency," O'Toole noted, adding that the changes in technology at the store level are bringing customers into the modern era.

For example at the show, NCR announced that Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Flying J is deploying its transformational store architecture solution, NCR Software Defined Store (NCR SDS) enabled by Zynstra, creating an infrastructure across the entire store to reduce costs and optimize operations for faster innovation.

NCR SDS virtualizes back- and front-office store technology with intelligent automation to significantly reduce the number of servers and hardware to maintain, simplifying maintenance and enabling systems to operate on multiple devices. Travel center operator Pilot Flying J is the first NCR customer to implement the solution across its portfolio.

As O'Toole pointed out, the speed of innovation — it only took six weeks to implement — is a game changer.

With a long history of transformation in the retail space, NCR also showcased advancements at the pump and with its self-checkout platform at NRF 2019.

According to Donna Stevens, product line director, self-service, NCR has been in the self-checkout space for about a decade, but to drive self-checkout further into the convenience and fuel channel, the company needs to think slightly differently than other retail channels. For example in convenience stores, you have age-restricted items, smaller baskets, different types of shoppers and loyalty.

These differences led NCR to rethink self-checkout technology. Notably, when it comes to age-restricted items, the company now taps age verification technology from Yoti. Customers can verify their age in two ways. First, a built-in camera at checkout takes a customer's picture and the Yoti age detection technology determines if the shopper meets the age requirement. In the second option, customers can use the Yoti app to upload their ID document and biometrics and create a digital identity. Shoppers scan a QR code on the self-checkout screen using the app and share their verified age attribute.

NCR has integrated technology that monitors what a customer is doing at self-checkout, too — and can detect if they scanned an item or not. If not, the system alerts a store associate who can then assist the shopper with their items.

While some retailers are focused on mobile as a checkout solution, the transaction rate is very low, according to O'Toole. However, "everybody uses self-checkout and everybody knows how to use it," he said.

Moving to the forecourt, NCR has upgraded the pump to allow a digital solution completely controllable by the retailer. NCR's Optic pump terminal — which is deployed at all Speedway convenience stores — features a 12-inch screen with the goal to drive customers inside the store. Among the capabilities, customers can order from the screen or search for coupons. It's all written by the retailer and managed by the cloud.

RELEX Solutions

RELEX’s SaaS solutions aim to deliver a quick return on investment and can be used independently or jointly for unified retail planning, enabling cross-functional optimization of retail’s core processes, such as merchandising, supply chain and store operations.

Chairman Andrew Blatherwick noted that using machine learning in the supply chain to localize product offerings enables brick-and-mortar stores to compete more effectively with online-only retailers. “Different stores have different customer profiles. We can operate at an individual store SKU level,” he noted.

“Because convenience is driven by space concerns, every square inch of the store counts,” Blatherwick continued. “We’re taking a unified approach to the entire supply chain, from frictionless inventory control to space planning and shelf optimization.”

Symphony RetailAI 

Symphony RetailAI, a leading global provider of AI-enabled decision platforms and customer-centric insights for retailers, revealed the rapid acceleration of the company’s AI capabilities over the past year. This included the introduction of new AI-enabled solutions and expanded features to existing solutions; industry recognition for Symphony RetailAI's continued innovation; and early results that emphasize the impact of AI for delivering profitable revenue growth for its retail customers.

In the last 12 months, Symphony RetailAI introduced new AI-enabled solutions that have helped its customers identify billions of dollars of revenue growth opportunities through supporting some of retail’s most critical and data-driven processes, according to Patty McDonald, global solution marketing director, and Ryan Powell, vice president of merchandising and category management.

McDonald told CSNews that with her company’s demand forecasting AI, retailers will see a significant drop in supply chain error rates, reduced inventory and a 2-3 percent improvement in forecasting accuracy. The end-to-end supply chain solution assists with ordering, replenishment, store operations, tracking and counting inventory, kitchen management and warehouse management.

“Our mandate is to be the No. 1 supplier of AI in the world,” added Powell, who explained that the solution also optimizes category management so that the retailer can achieve “the most efficient ROI for every square foot of space in the store.”

Zebra Technologies

In its 11th Annual Global Shopper Study, conducted in late 2018, Zebra Technologies found three key themes:

  1. Frictionless shopping experience. Customers want to be able to buy online and pick up in the store, be able to order online and return an item in the store, and have a self-checkout option in the store.
  2. The rise of leveraging technologies for location tracking. By 2021, according to the tech company, Bluetooth, RFID and lighting will be three key tools.
  3. Shopper engagement. More than half of retail associates said their stores are understaffed and 42 percent said they have little time to help shoppers because of pressure to get other tasks completed.

Zebra Technologies’ work with drugstore chain Walgreens is one example of how it is responding to these themes. By rolling out tablets and mobile computers to staff at roughly 10,000 U.S. locations, Walgreens associates have essentially “cut the cord,” allowing them to be in the store engaging with customers. Through the partnership, Walgreens associates also have access to a mobile intranet that gives them access to planograms and sales data, and allows them to manage inventory.

Zebra Technologies also offers its Personal Shopper Solution for retailers. The handheld, self-scanning devices allows customers to shop and scan as they move around the store. It not only cuts costs, but also makes the shopper journey more engaging, according to executives at the company.

In the third quarter of 2018, the company introduced an enhanced self-scanning device that picks up a customer's location inside the store and can alert the customer to promotions for nearby items. Even before walking up an aisle, customers can scan their loyalty cards — creating a personalized journey at the beginning of the shopping trip, rather than at the end.


San Francisco-based Zippin developed an AI-driven checkout-free technology platform that allows retailers to bring a frictionless shopping experience to consumers. In August, the tech startup opened a laboratory store in San Francisco to showcase how its technology works.

"Our desire is not to be a retailer. It is a concept store to showcase the technology," said CEO Krishna Motukuri, who added that the company is in talks with four retailers — two in the United States and two internationally — to go live with the platform.

To shop the store, customers download an app and get a digital key to enter the store. This process, Motukuri noted, can be integrated with a retailer's mobile app. Once inside, the customer shops naturally. "There are no restraints on customers," he said. "They shop, walk out and get a receipt on the app."

Motukuri acknowledged the concerns that the frictionless experience takes away jobs from store associates, but said in-store positions just change in a checkout-free store. "The reality is what people could be doing is very different from what they are doing," he said. "The reality is they should be doing customer service."

Zippin provides the software and a retailer buys the hardware elsewhere. The technology also removes the bottleneck at checkout and by removing that, a retailer will see sales increase, he added.

"Frictionless checkout is one of the biggest shifts in retail that we are going to see in the foreseeable future," Motukuri explained, dubbing it the biggest shift since barcodes.

And it's not just about eliminating lines at checkout. The platform allows retailers to gain real-time inventory data, he said, and get advanced analytics.

"For the first time, we know exactly what a customer is doing and not what they are buying," the chief executive said. "Have they picked up an item and put it back?"

In addition, by knowing who is the store when, there are fewer losses, he noted, and "shrink can completely go away."

As for cost, a retailer's investment for the Zippin software — which uses both cameras and sensors — is between $25 and $30 per square foot of the selling area.


At the Zynstra booth, CSNews interviewed CEO Nick East, Group Marketing Director Gavin Bisdee and Pilot Flying J’s Josh Birdwell about Zynstra’s and NCR’s transformational store architecture solution being deployed by the travel center chain.

This unique virtualization solution is a part of NCR’s blueprint for the next generation of retail store architecture. The architecture is purpose-built for retailers and creates an agile infrastructure across the entire store, reducing costs and optimizing operations for faster innovation.

Birdwell of Pilot Flying J said one of the best things about this new technology is that it doesn’t require an upgrade to legacy systems. It can optimize both the customer and employee experience using existing technology.

“It removes the concern that our existing hardware is going to hold us back from introducing new technology that will help Pilot,” Birdwell added.

“You can really innovate faster when you de-couple the hardware and software,” added Zynstra’s East.

By virtualizing back- and front-office store technology with intelligent automation, retailers significantly reduce the number of servers and hardware to maintain, said East. This simplifies maintenance and enables systems to operate on multiple devices.

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