I just returned to the office after a few days in NYC for the NRF Big Show, the retail industry's largest show of the year. There were two aspects of this show that I was particularly interested in. First, it's the place where the latest technology is revealed, and I was very interested to see how manufacturers were going to respond to consumer shopping habits with new products. Second, this show provides exhibitors a barometer of whether retailers are willing and able to open their pocketbooks in 2013.
Mobility Continues To Be The Buzz Word
From a product perspective, I saw some things that were not only cool, but could have a real impact on your customers. Motorola's new SB1 Smart Badge is a category buster. The wearable wi-fi-enabled device (about half as long as a typical smart phone and worn on a lanyard) can be used to send tasks to employees on the floor (e.g. "clean up aisle 14"), communicate between employees via push-to-talk, and scan bar codes with its omnidirectional scanner. Oh, it also serves as a name badge when not in use. Because the device has an e-ink display (think traditional Kindle) that has a low power draw, it has a typical battery life of more than 18 hours. Moto calls this an enterprise device, and the SB1 shows that a lot of functionality can be built into a small device that's more affordable than a full-blown mobile computer. If you've got customers who don't need all the power of a handheld computer, you might want this device on your line card.
Motorola and Honeywell were also showing off new smart phone-esque mobile computers. Both shown at the event were running Android with Windows 8 coming in the future. Both also were quite rugged. Honeywell's Dolphin 70e Black is intended for field service applications with an IP67 rating.
Moto's version, the MC40, was built more for store associates, so it had an optional mag-stripe reader. What I found interesting about the MC40 was that it's running an enterprise-hardened version of Android so its got some pretty nifty security tweaks to the OS. Additionally, Moto has a very transparent support plan for the Android OS, guaranteeing 6 years of active life for the product. I know that's something VARs have worried about when it comes to the Android OS. Finally, Moto has the MC40 priced comparatively with an iPhone tied with a mag-stripe sled.
POS Printers Evolve
When it comes to POS printers, none of the manufacturers have been slacking off. With all the interest in mobile POS, manufacturers including Brother, Zebra, and Star Micronics added Bluetooth capability to their printers allowing them to connect with smart phones -- whether iOS, Android, or Windows. Many also added swivel screens to their printers, creating a new category of device that blurs the lines between a printer with a small touch computer attached and a touch computer with a printer attached (hello, convergence). Star Micronics was showing their new printer w/ touch screen with ISV partners illustrating different uses. For example, one setup illustrated an online reservation solution where a customer could walk up, use the touch screen, and have a ticket printed.
Zebra had a cool little addition to all their printers -- NFC. With that, a user's smart phone or NFC tags can be incorporated into a solution. The applications here are endless. Some examples: ISVs can program the NFC antenna to pull up a support web page on the user's smart phone. Or, NFC can be used to authenticate a user based on their phone before printing. Or, an NFC tag can prompt the printer to print preloaded labels.
The mobility theme wasn't just limited to hand-held computers and POS printers. APG Cash Drawer was showcasing its new drawer that's wi-fi enabled. Now store associates using iPads, for example, can open the drawer wirelessly. APG also added a biometric scanner to their drawer. That way, a store associate must first authenticate with the drawer via fingerprint before the drawer can be accessed wirelessly.
Big Data In POS ... From An Unexpected Source
Epson revealed its new Omnilink smart solutions product line. Think of a T88V with a full-blown computer built in. The applications here are very impressive. One of Epson's ISV partners, Livelenz, was on hand at the booth to illustrate what such a powerful printer can do in the QSR space. Think about this: regardless of what hardware or software is being used for the POS, a receipt printer spits out detailed transaction information in a uniform manner. The new Epson T88V-i printer can send that transactional detail to the cloud where Livelenz sits. The ISV takes that data and crunches it in every way possible, giving restaurant owners and managers rich data and reports.
Livelenz CEO Joel Doherty -- who's also a restaurant owner -- pulled up reports for one of his stores. Using data only from the Epson Omnilink receipt printer, he can see his sales for the day, which employees had which sales in the day, how many voids were made, what his top-selling items were, what items were also bought with top-selling items, and on and on. The interface is clean and polished and the amount of detail is frankly amazing. Doherty told me that the service (yay, recurring revenue) costs retailers about $59 per store. He's looking for VARs and offering between 15% to 30% revenue share. Because the solution is truly software agnostic, any of your customers can use the service, provided they have one of Epson's new printers.
I've got a handful of product demo videos I need to edit in the coming days, so keep an eye on the Business Solutions Youtube channel to see some of these products mentioned above in action.
At the beginning, I mentioned the barometer aspect of NRF. I'm happy to report that almost every exhibitor I spoke with was ecstatic at the foot traffic, leads, and positive purchasing attitudes of those walking the floor. Between that and the survey our sister publication Integrated Solutions for Retailers did to its retailer audience late last year, all indicators point to a great 2013 for retail technology buying -- and selling.