The Betamax Syndrome

BetamaxThe National Retail Federation’s annual “Big Show” this year was held in New York. I’ve always viewed this event as more of a tech show than anything, and it’s continued to be more IT focused as each year passes. There’s virtually nothing there about growth strategy or how to compete in a changing environment. What is there is a lot of technology that will enable marketing and growth plans. It’s sort of a CES for retail.

Because of this technology focus, the scope is long; modern retail IT departments tend to think in terms of years for execution. And the investments required to execute many of these programs will require years to realize an ROI. The paradox is that day-to-day retail is a fast-moving business, so the factors that are driving decisions today could be obsolete in six months or six weeks.

This year’s NRF show was all about analytics: big data, shopper segmentation, facial recognition and shopper tracking were the attention-getters. Again, set aside piles of money and a lot of time. Not that these aren’t solid issues and necessary steps to take, but there was little to take away that will create sales lift in Q2 of this year—or next year, for that matter.

Last year’s big thing was mobile; there were all sorts of booths showing various mobile solutions along with apps and other related software. This year mobile was folded into everything else; there was nary a mobile booth in sight. Instead of a standalone offering, mobile was just part of the landscape, which is how it should be.

So for retailers, the challenge becomes how to figure out what’s here to stay and what is on its way to becoming old news. There are few things worse than finding out you’ve made a multi-year investment in technology that’s now obsolete. This used to be known as the Betamax Syndrome, but even that reference is getting a bit long in the tooth.

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The point is that when it comes to making massive investments that measure ROI over years, you simply don’t want to be an early adopter. Just because your competitor is doing something with facial recognition is no reason to go out and buy cameras and software. On the other hand, if you’re still on the fence about whether mobile is going to stay, it’s time to make some investments there—but only as part of your overall engagement strategy, not just to have an app.

Technology is a great thing, but it’s always good to keep your focus on what is truly needed, and how technology can make that need better, faster or cheaper. Too often, especially when visiting IT candy stores like NRF, the technology tends to drive the strategy. That’s a sure sign of trouble ahead.

This post originally appeared on The Shelf Edge and has been reposted  with permission.

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