Intel, Dell Offer IT for Retail Stores

Intel is pushing cutting-edge technology at the National Retail Federation show, while Dell and other IT vendors are offering hardware, software and services.

NEW YORK - If you're a man or woman, young or old, a runner, a soccer player or just a casual sports fan, Intel and Adidas have the perfect pair of shoes for you.

As long as you don't mind that you're looking at a pair of virtual shoes. The real ones are probably somewhere in the storeroom.

This new vision of retail, which combines semiconductor technology, video analytics and old-fashioned brick-and-mortar sales, could be found at the National Retail Federation Convention and Expo, which kicked off Jan. 9 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here.

While the NRF show usually focuses on the latest trends in retail, IT companies had a significant presence this year, which many agreed was a big improvement, compared with last year's expo, when companies were still recovering from the recession and poor sales. This year, companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Motorola, Intel and Hewlett-Packard dominated the showroom floor with big displays to show how technology can make retail more profitable.

One of the more impressive displays on the floor belonged to Intel, which partnered with the likes of Adidas and Kraft Foods to show how technology and commerce can converge within the retail space. First, Intel introduced a version of the company's "Sandy Bridge" Core processors for embedded devices. These chips combine CPU and graphics technology on a single piece of silicon. Intel introduced these second-generation Core processors at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

"What we want to do is bring the best of online into the brick-and-mortar stores," said Chris O'Malley, director of Intel's retail marketing, adding that, in addition to chips, Intel is looking to bring technology such as vPro into retail as a way to manage POS (point-of-sale) machines and other equipment.

"If a digital sign crashes, it could sit there for three to four hours before someone tries to get it fixed," O'Malley said. "With something like vPro, the signal is sent, and a sign or a POS machine can be restarted or reimaged."

These Sandy Bridge processors and vPro have been combined with new technology that Intel is developing called anonymous video analytics, which work with large, touch-screen displays that can identify people by their gender and age. Intel had been developing this AIM (Anonymous Impression Metric) platform, when it bought a small Canadian digital-signage company, called CognoVision late last year.

For Kraft, this new technology means a retail display that can not only tell a shopper what is on his or her grocery list; it also can suggest recipes based on both a person's gender, age and what is on that weekly shopping list. Of course, there is also a social-media component that allows people to share and "like" recipes on Facebook.

While the Kraft display is still proof-of-concept technology, the Adidas display is moving closer to reality. The display, which uses a huge touch-screen to let customers see and get information on thousands of pairs of shoes, is expected to move toward a pilot program later this year. The screen allows the customer to customize the shoes they are looking for by price, size, color and even what sport the footwear is designed for. Once the customer selects a shoe, the information is sent to an employee with a tablet who can retrieve the item from a storeroom.

Adidas is currently working to integrate the customer-facing screen with the company's back-end infrastructure and CRM (customer-relationship management) software.

For now, touch-screens like those Adidas and Kraft are using are rapidly close to reality. However, Intel is also looking to offer displays with hands-free gesture technology that will allow customers to browse products from several feet away or even outside the store. However, at the Intel booth, a brief, hands-on demonstration using shaving products for men showed that technology in need of vast amounts of improvements before any sort of initial deployment.

If Intel's display was a "Minority Report," then Dell was more bread-and-butter. At its booth, Dell had all the familiar trappings of the NRF show: POS machines, IP video cameras for security and digital signs.

However, Dell was pushing its wares in two specific directions. The first targeted small and midsized retail stores, which Dell translates into any company with 10 to 100 retail shows, and the second is IT services. For the better part of two years, Dell has pushed its SMB and IT services as the company looks to reinvent itself, and now that same focus is coming to vertical markets, such as retail.

Brian Slaughter, director of end-user solutions for Dell's Large Enterprise division, believes that the company's acquisitions, such as Kace Networks and Perot Systems, have helped the PC maker expand its operations. The Kace buy allows Dell to offer device-management capabilities to retail stores. Perot, which did not have a specific retail division, helps Dell integrate software, such as SAP applications, across its retail offerings, said Slaughter.

Then there is mobile technology, a new field to Dell but one that it's pouring resources into as of late. At this year's CES, the company announced its latest Streak device running Android 2.2. Slaughter had two Streaks on display with him at the NRF show to demonstrate how consumers are changing their habits and how retail owners need to adjust.

"Consumers bring to retail what they want to do," said Slaughter, as he gestured toward the 7-inch Streak tablet. "In respect to the customers, a lot of times they are ahead of retail people. At the same time, these are the type of devices that employees already have with them personally, and this is what they want to use in the stores. It's all about having more information readily available."