Evoke’s technical director, Dean Ward, shares this thoughts on the team’s trip to the Big Apple for the National Retail Federation: Big Show 2017

It’s fair to say that uncertainty is the prevailing mood in the USA at the moment. But while the new President’s Tweets –are impossible to predict, there’s one thing you can be certain of: retailers’ love for digital technology shows no signs of waning.

Held every year in New York, the National Retail Federation’s ‘Big Show’ is a staple trip in the Evoke calendar.  Playing host to more 33,000 people and 550 exhibitors, the four day event is a veritable who’s who of the retail industry. It gives us a great chance to meet with our existing customers in the States – with Nike, Adidas and McDonald’s all well represented – and there’s also the chance to make new connections with potential distribution partners and agents.

But it also gives us invaluable insight into what the emerging trends in the sector are: what’s worrying retailers, and what are they focused on. Amazon is showing no signs of halting its march on the high street. The online behemoth is planning an aggressive incursion by opening bricks and mortar stores, leaving brands under no illusions that they need to come up with progressively innovative ways to combat this.

Online will always trump in-store when it comes to convenience, but the smart strategy is to focus on the battles which can be won. Stores are becoming increasingly focused on delivering an extraordinary experience. One that’s personalised, utterly engaging and that can seamlessly blend a tangible hands-on offering with genuinely useful digital technology.

Alongside the exhibition itself, New York is home to flagship stores for some of the biggest brands in the world. I was particularly excited to visit this year, as Evoke customers Nike and Adidas are at the vanguard of delivering this new kind retail theatre, and both launched new technology-focused stores in 2016.

Nike has opened a 55,000 sq ft store in SoHo, replacing the tills with digital kiosks and mobile POS, while making brilliant use of the space. There’s less a sense of it being a classic transaction driven environment, and more a community hub, tailored to the company’s target demographic. The whole store buzzes with connectivity and interactivity. Shoppers get the chance to try running shoes on treadmills that take them on a virtual run in NYC’s iconic Central Park. Key staff are hired as dedicated on-one-one ‘athletes’ and are experts in their field. Sessions are booked with them in advance and these sessions typically yield are higher average spend. Changing rooms are larger to facilitate stretching and lunging in the latest active wear, and replete with lighting that can be adjusted to mirror a yoga studio, or darkened further to reflect a night run. There’s even a full size basketball court!

A few blocks away is Adidas’ offering. The flagship store on the corner of 5th Avenue is the company’s largest high street unit and just as impressive. The whole environment is designed to feel like a sports arena. Adidas launched its ‘stadium retail’ concept back in 2014 and this latest iterations is truly immersive.  Chain-link fencing, player tunnels and bleachers for shoppers to sit and watch televised game set the scene. Customers can have consultations with personal trainers or refuel with a healthy concoction from the store’s juice bar.

Digital kiosks and interactive signage flash up product information and present the ability to browse and order an entire back catalogue, while ‘customisation stations’ allow personalisation of clothes and footwear. Indeed inviting customers to do more than just buy is an emerging trend. ‘Co-creation’ – from simple customisation of trainers using digital kiosks to actively participating in store organised events – encourages people to buy into the brand values, fostering a sense of loyalty and, ultimately, driving future sales.

The attention to detail and opportunity for interaction is staggering. Both stores are standout examples of retail theatre at its finest. Back at the show we heard Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich announce that the company would be investing $100 million in retail technology R&D, and there were numerous examples of IBM’s Watson super computer powering technology that could analyse emotion through tone of voice and facial expressions. Access to data and increasingly intelligent artificial intelligence will continue to top retailers’ wish lists, and the big tech firms know it.

Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology also shows incredible promise for retailers and featured heavily, with Macy’s announcement that it is adopting it throughout its stores still reverberating around the sector. RFID entails tagging objects with tiny electromagnetic chips, and it’s hit the headlines recently thanks to Amazon’s ‘Go’ initiative, which proposes automated transactions, billing a shopper as they leave the store – but the underlying technology is nothing new.

Macy’s is using it to great effect to not only streamline stock checks and supply chain control, but to assess how long products have been on shelves, and also to analyse what has been picked up and what hasn’t.

At Evoke we have considerable expertise with RFID through our work with leading library self-service provider Bibliotheca, and our thoughts on its applications and implementation will be the subject of a future blog. Boarding the plane back to the UK I felt that far from being overawed by the technology on display, we were somewhat ahead of the curve. They do some things brilliantly in the US – they certainly take retail theatre to a whole new level.

But the digital kiosks and signage we’re developing in the UK are still streets ahead of their USA-manufactured counterparts – both in terms of form, and function.

The market is primed for disruption and I’m excited to continue growing our business on the other side of the Atlantic.