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What we need to learn from the Retail Tech Titans

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The future of retail is dependent and driven by technology - technology that changes faster than ever and that has empowered the consumer to disrupt everything from how we communicate, how we discover, where and when we buy, and how we pay for it all.

With the emulsion of influential retail executives and innovative technology partners, the retail industry is evolving and being challenged like never before. And, for executives in the retail industry, the game-changing partners (and, in some cases – competitors) include what have been deemed as the Retail Tech Titans, also known as Amazon, Apple, eBay, Facebook, and Google.

Why them? Amazon, Apple, Ebay, Facebook, and Google heavily shape our world as digital retailers. They've had an impact on driving traffic to retail stores and sites through search and advertising, engaging with retail consumers on social channels, and are even changing the way consumers can research and pay for products in stores and online. These revolutionary companies are on every retail executive's mind. As partners and as competitors, what's next for each of them will continue to push the retail industry to change, grow, and innovate. These five companies dominate the e-retail, search, tablet, smartphone, social media, and marketplace wallets. Just to name a few. They have taken aim at industries including media and entertainment, publishing, and travel. Again, that’s just to name a few.

Over the last several months, our team at and NRF has lined up presentations on the Retail Tech Titans thanks to our partners and speakers, Lori Schafer and Deb Weinswig. Most recently, the duo presented at NRFtech this week on Retail Innovation in the Tech Titan Era to an engaged group of retail CIOs and IT leadership.

While the takeaways and insights were endless, a few core strength areas of the Titans came up that retailers should keep in mind as the focus areas of these companies continue to blur, continue to grow, and continue to change. Here are my favorite takeaways on the Tech Titans:

They enable (and control) product search and discovery. Retail marketers continue to invest a significant portion of their online marketing spend towards paid search tactics. To ‘google’ something is a commonly used transitive verb in the English language (and beyond.) But, Google is not the only one in the critical search process of shopping and product discovery for consumers. Based on a recent Forrester Research report, we also know that 30% of online shoppers research Amazon before purchasing a product. While Google and Amazon currently dominate the search world, Facebook is contending for paid search and advertising dollars. The Tech Titans have a powerful grip over the very tools that influence and drive billions of dollars in marketing spend and sales for retail. As retailers, we partner with them (and their smaller challengers – eBay, Yahoo, and Pinterest) and depend on their technology and reach to enable our consumers to find, discover, and purchase retail products.

They have driven all things mobile and the reinvention of the retail store. Let’s call this the App(le) Affect. The most valuable brand in the world has revolutionized how, where, and when, people communication, share, and shop. Retailers have redefined how they market to the always-connected consumer and many have utilized Apple technology to influence how they market and merchandise their products online.

In addition to their influence (and control) on all things apps, Apple has had a resounding influence on the power of innovation in stores. They have literally reinvented the retail experience with in-store product pickup, mobile checkout experiences, in-store product geniuses, and more. While the retail industry struggles with the crisis that is ‘showrooming’, companies like Apple continue to win over the consumer and win the sale with empowering the shopper both online and in their stores - omnichannel and customer engagement at its finest. They empower the always-connected consumer – revolutionizing and reinventing retail as we know it.

They invest in innovation (and this starts with retail employees.) What has changed the most in retail over the last ten years is the blurring of what we were once able to break apart. Some of the most successful retail companies (Hello, Amazon!) run like technology companies. They move faster. They think outside the box. They invest in fast-growing business models and technology companies that can make their overall business stronger.

Who are some of the retailers doing this best? Apple, Ebay, Amazon, Gilt Groupe, Nordstrom, and Target – just to name a few. Brands like the ones mentioned invest in technologies that empower all things mobile, social, local, and all things digital. Brands like Nordstrom and Macy’s have invested in hiring hundreds of employees to help grow their digital business (in addition to their IT team) to truly fold that into the entire retail organization rather than letting it thrive as a silo. Investing in employees – we knew to do that long before the Tech Titans came around - but what they have done to attract and keep top talent should be admired and replicated.

The Retail Tech Titans. The Big Five. However you may refer to them - they are friends and they are foes. Beware? Many would say so. But first, we have quite a lot to learn from them, endless ways to partner with them, and in some instances - the perfect opportunity to use their empowering models of innovation and change to make retail bigger, stronger, and better than ever. After all, most of us remember that just a decade ago, we would have had a completely different set of “Tech Titans” to partner with and fear – all at the same time.