Retail Fantasyland

Go to the National Retail Federation annual convention, and you might think we’re on the verge of a high-tech shopping boom. So where is it? Paco Underhill, retail consultant and author of Why We Buy, explains.



Retail’s big show 2008
January 13-16 | New York

What’s the big retail-industry show like?

It’s a bit of a Disneyland experience, but it’s technology in search of an application. Almost every month, I have a tech company knocking on my door, asking, “How can I package this in a way that I can do something with it?”

We were intrigued by last year’s show darling, the “magic mirror” [bottom right] that let you show your friends an outfit you’re trying on in the dressing room and get their instant feedback and suggestions.

Magic mirror–it was complete bullshit. It’s not that the idea isn’t cool, but the idea that you’d mobile your friends . . . does that really translate into sales? Think about Niketown in New York: It was cool at first, and now it sits there like a white elephant.

What’s the problem?


Part of the challenge for technology in retail is that it has to be useful to the captains and sergeants back in the home office. There are still major U.S. chains where the merchandising plans are sent via fax machine.

Where are the opportunities to use technology to innovate in retail?

I just saw a system installed at Zara in Spain that connects sales associates on the floor with the chain’s buyers and merchandisers. After each sale, the clerk provides information from the store–what the visuals were and the responses–up the chain of command via a touch-screen system.

Also, the emerging shopping meccas are places such as Brazil, Mex­ico, China, and Russia. If they took the magic mirror to the Middle Eastern Council of Shopping Centers and set up the ability to service it in the United Arab Emirates, the fastest-growing shopping market in the world, that would be interesting. This is one of the frustrations when talking to American technology providers: They don’t sell offshore; they don’t speak another language. They want to sell to Federated, but department stores aren’t exactly booming.

So we’ll see you at the show?

I stopped going to the National Retail Federation, because so much of the trade-show floor is dominated by technology companies that have their heads up their ass.

About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton