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The Takeaway from NRF: It's About the Technology, Retailers

Buzzword alert: multichannel is out.

CNBC

The word "multichannel" is tied to a concept of retailers operating in multiple channels — they have a store, they have a website, and they have some way for consumers to access their products on smartphones and tablets.

But one message ran loud and clear at the National Retail Federation Conference in New York this week — that's not enough.

Some used the word "omnichannel" to describe shoppers slipping seamlessly from store to website to mobile device. Imagine a scenario where shoppers research a product online, head to the store to buy it, but at the last minute turn to their smartphone to double-check they're getting the right price. That's happening everyday.

But others say even this is a concept falling behind the times. Shoppers don't think about shopping a "channel." They think about shopping, and if you're lucky they think about shopping a specific brand.

Research by Cisco suggests shoppers are imagining other ways to shop across channels. For example, most seem open to using an in-store kiosk to research products and make a purchase online, or to research a product at an in-store kiosk, purchase it in the store, and have it delivered to another location.

It's been an interesting progression. The recession forced consumers to be thrifty, and online search and mobile devices allowed consumers to be empowered, and they're not likely to leave those new behaviors behind. But the technology is changing the way consumers behave and what they expect.

But time and time again, conference goers mentioned the need to train retail staff to live in this world. Salespeople need both more technology at their disposal and the ability to use it.

They also need to not think of a brand's website as a competitor. UK retailer John Lewis has an interesting way around this. The retailer credits sales made through its website to the store nearest the location where the computer that was used for the purchase is located.

Cisco StyleMe™ Virtual Fashion Mirror
Source: Cisco IBSG, 2011
Cisco StyleMe™ Virtual Fashion Mirror

The other problem around all this technology is that it can be a race to the lowest price unless a retailer can stand out to consumers in terms of service, product, experience or some combination of the three.

Ascena Retail Group President and CEO David Jaffe discussed how it has been redesigning the fitting room area of its Maurices stores to emphasize the social aspect of shopping. There are places for family and friends to sit and new fixtures that make the area more inviting.

This also addresses another problem that is top of mind for retailers: How do you coax consumers to the store more often?

Cisco's research suggests shoppers would prefer to shop in stores that combine physical and virtual worlds. One concept they are testing is Cisco StyleMe, an interactive way to "try on" clothing and accessories virtually. Shoppers stand before a mirror-like device and use their hand to swipe on new outfits and can even send them to their friends or post them to Facebook.

But Cisco's virtual mirror was only one example of the many, many new tools being designed to make shopping more fun for consumers that were on display at NRF.

Technology is also being used to make shopping more personalized for consumers.

International Business Machines released the results of a survey of 28,000 consumers, which showed shoppers actually want to receive more communication from their favorite stores, but they want to receive these messages through their choice of media and in a way that is relevant to them.

But retailers need to protect this information — a point that was underscored by the revelation Monday that online shoe retailer Zappos.com was the victim of a cyber attack. It was humbling for many retailers to think that if online retail giant Amazon.com , which owns Zappos, is susceptible, what about them?

All of that sets up a pretty long "to do" list for 2012. But if that's not enough to chew on, MaxPoint, a company that helps retailers with targeted, digital advertising, put out a list of "101 New Rules for Retail" that it gathered from those attending the conference.

Not surprisingly, mobile adoption, creating a seamless cross-channel experience, security and customer service were the four common themes.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Christina Cheddar Berk on Twitter @ccheddarberk.

Retail