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Retail Evolution

CES 2018: Your voice-activated, driverless, 5G future is here. Really.

Doug Straton
Vice President e-Commerce

Leading up to, during, and after CES we had a flurry of Digital Commerce related activity in the retail world, including chatter from the Venture Capital community on what more is going to happen over the next few months, like Kroger reportedly bidding for Boxed. Sam’s Club is closing 63 locations, 10 becoming eCommerce fulfillment centers, the first major retailer example of “dark stores” in the US in recent memory. Instacart bought Unata, a Canadian company which has a similar model. This is all on the heels of Target buying Shipt, and then rumors of Amazon buying Target.

My big takeaways from CES in general were the following, all of which will have meaningful impact to business:

Driverless Delivery, Stores, Vending and Experiences now feel truly real. How this will come to life (as marketers) is up to our own imaginations, and how we view the opportunities. Toyota, Ford (with Domino’s), and the sheer amount of ideation around the recreation of the interiors of what we think of as “cars” was startling. While what driverless tech can do in the near term will remain novel for a myriad of reasons, over the long-term one can now see how more clearly how this technology becomes a real marketing and sales lever.

5G: The Death of WiFi as we know it and High-Speed Ubiquity. 5G enables very high-speed data transfer over cellular, enough to stream 4k through connected devices according to my nerd friends. That’s cool on its own for the geek in all of us, but as the speeds are so high and accessibility to it so ubiquitous – not tied to cable or fiber-optics – that the game changer is making access to high speed connectivity that much easier to yet more (underserved) segments of the population. The reality of being able to stream anything in 4K from your mobile device anywhere will in my view accelerate cord-cutting (and actual cable cutting, too), as will the general trend towards already dominant devices and further away from traditional TV, not to mention a further boosting of Digital Commerce.

Voice is “hear” to stay… and Round One goes to Amazon. Everything is being Alexa enabled, with Google in distant second. Generally, “conversational commerce” will be a true area to be cracked (not just Voice, but Bots like Facebook’s Messenger, Voice’s quieter cousin). We are still in the stage where the hype (and its progeny, stupid products based on questionable insight) is out of line with what the realistic value-added use cases truly are; however, there is enough indication that we as marketers need to consider what a “brand voice” really means in the coming age of conversational media, commerce, and other Voice-related functionality. Finally, voice devices seem to be moving towards including screens … and that additional interactivity is a good thing.

AI, AR/VR still buzzy and has promise, but the hype is starting to settle down. They are real and have utility, but the hype bubble has burst a bit, and that is a good thing. We are seeing some settling down and the innovations on display were much more grounded, useful and commercially relevant. That said, a plea to brands: Please don’t use “AI” as part of your product name when the product doesn’t have any real intelligence … you’re just eroding the promise of the technology, the adoption of it, and ultimately your brand.

So, no earth-shattering newness that left me enraptured and altered my way of thinking, but, as standards and platform winners are emerging in key areas, it’s clear that innovators will be able to focus on better products and services, as opposed to enabling and underlying technologies. This leaves us poised for an acceleration of truly impactful and actually usable products, services innovation that can be commercialized at scale. And that within itself is progress. Your (driverless) mileage may vary.

See you next year.