In “Age of Amazon,” All Retailers Are Tech Companies, Even Walmart

Technology took center stage this week as the nation’s retailers made their annual pilgrimage to New York.

At the National Retail Federation’s three-day conference, which ended Tuesday, the discussion centered on both the disruptive effects and potential promise of e-commerce technologies.

Kate Ancketill, the CEO of GDR Creative Intelligence, a retail trends consultancy, said retailers must adapt by becoming more than traditional stores. “The retailers best positioned in the future will be those who adopt a more expansive definition of retail itself,” she said, according to a blog post about the conference on the NRF website.

How that identity expands will largely depend on how retailers deploy technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence, analytics, and devices like “smart mirrors” that function as computing interfaces as well as showing you how you look. Merchants might be selling apparel, footwear, jewelry, and other consumer items, but discussion at the conference’s events acknowledged that future growth will rely on how innovative technologies persuade shoppers to buy.

In fact, none other than the world’s largest retailer is embracing such a tech-forward future. During remarks he gave to attendees, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called the Arkansas-based retailer a “technology company,” even while online purchases account for only 12 percent of the company’s sales.

“The way customers want to live their lives today brings the store and e-commerce experiences together,” he said, according to an NRF blog post.

To this end, Walmart has spent billions to expand its suite of digital innovations to support the company’s growing e-commerce business, most recently with the purchase of, Bonobos, and Parcel. (And Walmart is hardly alone in its acquisition spree; see Target, Ikea, Ace Hardware, and others.)

The NRF conference this year drew more than 600 exhibitors, including well-known retail brands from Walmart to Neiman Marcus. One name—Amazon—loomed over the proceedings.

“In the age of Amazon it has become more apparent that building the best customer experience on the front end, with killer marketing and merchandising, means little if you drop the ball after the purchase,” writes Mike Cassidy in a blog post on Signifyd, a software firm that aims to prevent e-commerce fraud.

Amazon dominated the proceedings at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, too, as e-commerce continues to become a larger part of the overall retail industry.

Adobe Analytics reported Tuesday that online sales in the U.S. hit a record $108.2 billion during the holiday season, a 14.7 percent increase from the previous year. Overall, the NRF said total sales for November and December (both online and in stores) increased 5.5 percent to $691.9 billion.

In an interview just before Black Friday, Jill Dvorak, the NRF’s senior director of digital retail, told me retailers are using technologies to create personalized experiences that encourage shoppers to make purchases.

That trend seems to be driving growth in retail tech startups. For example, New York-based FindMine makes artificial intelligence software used by retailers to help shoppers put outfits together online. According to a tweet by Fung Retail Tech analyst Deborah Weinswig, FindMine founder and CEO Michelle Bacharach said at the NRF expo that “customers will spend 200 percent more when you show them what to buy.”

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