NEW YORK — The future of retail has a lot of head-spinning syllables: analytics, omnichannels, integrated shopping experiences. And yet the underlying theme of the National Retail Federation's 104th annual "Big Show" is a simple, altogether human one:
You, the Consumer, are a fascinating, mysterious creature, a riddle yet to be fully solved.
Oh, and you are definitely being watched.
The four-day trade show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center — some 600 vendors, 33,000 attendees and endless miles of blinking high-tech whirligigs on two gargantuan expo floors — is a lively, rah-rah retail party of companies selling to companies, with everyone intent at better getting into your head, your heart and, especially, your wallet.
After a shaky 2014, this year is expected to be robust for retail, the largest private-sector employer in the United States. Lower gas prices alone will be "an unbelievable boost to the consumer," says Ellen Zentner, Morgan Stanley's executive director and senior U.S. economist, adding that cheaper fuel for our collective Buicks could lead to an extra $50 billion in U.S. consumer spending this year.
Those bonus trips to the Gap or Home Depot have the folks at the Big Show, which runs until Wednesday, thinking big profits. Not that it's all that easy, of course.
Online purchases (which are up), the increasing dominance of the mobile phone and social media, and murmured concerns for the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar store (sales are down) have led to a tactical shift: Bring the Internet into the physical stores themselves and aim for a full "experience," the biggest buzz word at this year's convention.
"The elephant in the room is that we're all still trying to figure (social media) out," says Michael Osofsky, co-founder of NetBase, which analyzes your Twitter habits and related web trends. "Good luck. It's hard to stay on top of it."
As a result, much of the new shopping technology that could be in stores soon is invasive yet fun, efficient but altogether Orwellian. Toshiba is displaying a concept called Touchless Commerce, a self-checkout mechanism with facial recognition and, well, Funyuns recognition: One camera scans your face (and links up with your payment information); one scans your groceries. Total checkout time? One and a half seconds. At the same time, Touchless is processing and analyzing your spending habits and Funyuns addiction.
"We're reducing transaction times and moving retail forward," says Jeff Smith, a Toshiba "experience architect master inventor," adding, "It's a simultaneous experience that happens in parallel." (There's a lot of that sort of talk at the Big Show.)
Panasonic's R1 Toughpad is an all-in-one tablet that can ring up a sale and, through facial recognition, allow a clerk to greet you by name and ask you how you're enjoying those Dockers you purchased last week (very similar to a scene in the futuristic 2002 film Minority Report).
"They will know what you bought, when you bought it and what size you bought it in," says Jo Satili, Panasonic's national sales manager.
Because buying diapers was apparently not exciting enough, the mundane sales rack is getting an upgrade, as seen in such new gadgets as Panasonic's Powershelf and an interactive gizmo called Shelfbucks, the brainchild of a Texas company (tagline: "Shelfbucks brings the power of the Internet to the store shelf"). Soon enough, picking up Pampers will be like a video game: digital price tags, mobile-phone interactivity and more.
Contact Sean Daly at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife.