New Tech I Saw at NRF That May Be a Waste of Money

by Kit Campoy

January 23, 2024

If there’s one thing the National Retail Federation (NRF) convention has in spades, it’s new solutions to making frontline salespeople more productive. From RFID technology to streamlining store communications, NRF has it all.

Tech advances are racing, and it’s now easier than ever to ensure inventory levels are full, communication is quick, and salespeople are saying the right things. 

But how many of these are needed? How many are actually helpful, and how many are a waste of money? Will customers appreciate the tech advances, or will they get in the way? Let’s sort through it. 

Of course, I have many thoughts and cannot wait to share them with you.

Let’s go!


A New Era of Customer Service – A Button

Pressing a button on the wall for customer service doesn’t seem like the most advanced solution in stores, but it was on one company’s agenda. In addition to some fancy wearable tech devices that let associates communicate quickly and see the store’s inventory, this tech company also had a customer service button. 

Stores can place these white buttons throughout the store, and if a customer needs help and they don’t see an associate, they can push it.

Okay. Um, here’s what hit me first. 

No customer wants to press a button and wait for an employee to come over. Let’s get that notion out of the way first. This tactic has already proven to annoy customers in drugstores. People would rather walk out and order the item online than wait for a sales associate. 

Also, the button “solution” may encourage companies to spend more on their tech than the humans working in their buildings. 

Get rid of the button. Hire people. Pay them well. Figure out how to build your culture. 

Take the money allocated for the button and give it to your stores as payroll dollars. 

I would’ve quit if any company I ever worked for would’ve doled out cash for a button. 

No joke. Bye. 

Many retail leaders are career professionals who pride themselves on customer service and clienteling. I did. I taught my sales staff to drop projects and head over to help people. The leaders in the building taught them to make themselves available. I don’t care if the shipment was delayed or a visual update got behind – we would help our customers.

Our goal was to have the city’s best, most caring staff, and we did. 

Also, let’s be honest about this. Customers will press that button and do one of two things: yell for help or leave and find an employee. When I worked in a department store, a customer who needed help yelled, “Can I get a worker over here?!” and I had to be the one to help. Do you think she was in a good mood? No. 

Quit it with the buttons. 

Moving on.


Yes, AI is Cool. It Doesn’t Fit Every Situation.

Every company under the sun wants to talk about its AI innovations right now. Yeah, sure, AI is awesome. AI can do some pretty neat stuff. But it doesn’t need to be everywhere. In fact, it doesn’t make sense in most cases. 

I attended a presentation this week about AI in point of sale (POS) systems – registers. I was intrigued. Some of the capabilities, like taking a regular customer’s profile and recommending items based on previous purchases, are helpful. The technology “learns” what the customer likes and then can present items that fit into their existing wardrobe nicely. 

Sweet!

However, one feature I saw touted as revolutionary was utterly useless and may have some security concerns. 

A company presented a “speak to search” function for their POS system. So, as the sales associate is helping someone, they could say, “Pull up the customer profile for Natalie Smith.”

Uh-huh. 

Do you know how loud retail stores are? They’re loud. Also, the customer is most certainly going to talk over the associate. 

“No. Not Natalie. Natalia. N-A-T-A-L-I-A.” They’re going to spell it out. The system may not be able to tell what voice it should be listening to (even though companies claim it can) and the associate will get a search return with everything from Nate, Natalie, and Nadia. 

Cool. Not helpful.

Some customers may not want their personal information spoken loud enough for the POS to complete the search. 

What’s wrong with a keyboard? I don’t understand.

Too many companies are out here trying to create or chase bright, shiny things when a lot of what we use every day works really well. 

Like a keyboard. 


Record Every Conversation Ever. Then, Analyze More Reports. Hooray!

I spoke to another convention goer telling me about a device that records sales associates on the floor chatting with customers. The tech records and stores everything employees are saying. It knows to listen for keywords and will analyze which employees say the correct phrases on the floor. 

“They’ve been doing it in call centers for years!” He exclaimed. I tried to camouflage my disgust as intrigue. 

(Alright. Breathe, Kit. Breathe.) It’s fine. I have a fantastic poker face. 

A sales floor is very different from a call center. 

Customers meander into shopping stores. They talk about everything from the weather, sports, travel, and where their kids go to school. Every interaction is unique. 

When customers call a call center, most conversations will be the same. The employees can follow a script. No one will call a call center to chat about their upcoming vacation. It’s never going to happen. 

Store associates must be able to connect with random people about life events. These casual interactions turn the average person roaming around into a loyal customer. 

Is there product knowledge they should include? Yes. Should they be able to pivot from casual conversation to selling? Yes. When you have a solid leadership team, they can train these skills. 

Pardon me, but I feel like the data analytics lurking behind “Cindy doesn’t talk about our product, The Ultimate Fuzzy Sweater enough,” could fall into the lazy management category. 

Collecting ungodly amounts of recordings, storing them, analyzing them, and then having sales managers comb through the results is taking the longest route to get the result you want. It’s creating more work for everybody under the guise of ranking the sales team. 

More information doesn’t always lean into the positive. Sometimes, it creates more headaches. Think about stripping away all the fluff and fancy data.  

Hire attitude. Train skill. Build a culture employees want to show up for; you don’t need to record every conversation your employees have. Fantastic customer interactions are pretty straightforward. Salespeople must learn how to listen and guide people in the right direction.


The race to implement AI is fierce. And yes, the tech is incredible. But companies are popping up all over the place to solve problems that either don’t exist or could be solved with better leadership.

The bedrock of fantastic companies is leaders who genuinely care about people. 

In my twenty years running teams on the sales floor, I never had an issue with employee retention. It was never an issue because I cared about everyone. I looked out for their best interests, like my siblings or cousins. 

I was able to do it without being a pushover. I did it without playing favorites. 

Expect great work from people, maintain transparency, and ask for their feedback. People want to be a part of something bigger. They want to be part of an inspiring team. 

You don’t need a customer service button, AI in your POS system, or to record every conversation in stores. 

Humans are simple. Talk to one, and you’ll see. 


Based in Southern California, Kit Campoy is a former retail leader turned freelance writer. She covers Retail, Leadership, and Business. Get her latest book, The Retail Leader’s Field Guide, today. 

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