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NEW YORK—The retail technology world is in transition, and nowhere is that as clear as at the industry’s largest gathering, the National Retail Federation’s tradeshow and conference here.

There are primarily two transitions taking place. The first is an in-store transition, from a world where technology was virtually all behind the scenes as far as consumers were concerned to one where the bits and bytes are what the industry dubs customer-facing.

That’s been true for a year or two. What’s happening this year is the next logical step, where instead of consumers seeing the technology passively—such as walking by a digital commercial on what had been an ordinary pillar or noticing that a point-of-sale unit is a lot faster than the older electronic cash registers—they are required to actively participate or, more frightening for retailers, opt to actively participate.

The active participations run from deciding to use a self-checkout system, accepting an RFID contactless payment card, or asking a kiosk for directional or price-lookup help to seeking permission to e-mail product specials, using a customer’s cell phone for payment/communication and even asking them to scan two-dimensional bar codes with their phone’s camera to bring up deep Web pages.

The second transition is movement from large global retailers that have distinct online and offline operations to merchants with a smooth melding of offline and online. The hurdles for that change are about 20 percent technological (merging and reconciling the databases between storefront and virtual) and 80 percent psychological (getting senior management to truly buy into combining both efforts and to support that with business decisions including commission arrangements and organizational chart issues.

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At the show here this week, product announcements and panel presentations emphasized building an infrastructure to support a world where much of the equipment will be bought and brought—and much of the keystrokes will be typed—by consumers.

PayByTouch, for example, showed new biometric systems that allow products to be scanned by consumers and that print out customized coupons for the customers while they are still in the aisle.

Probably the most surreal exhibit was from a consulting firm called IconNicholson. Its theoretical future look—akin to something one would expect to visit at Disney’s EPCOT—showed the ultimate merger of online and offline.

It features video cameras in-store, where customers can broadcast live images of themselves trying on clothing so friends (and strangers) can view the images on a Web site and instant message comments back. The comments are all integrated into a display in the store, meaning the store could theoretically learn from the comments as well.

“The technologies behind social retailing tap two major industry trends that will drive change into our clients’ businesses for the next several years,” said Christopher Enright, chief technology officer for IconNicholson. “Near Field Communication and Web 2.0 together show how much impact the emerging Internet of objects will have on everyday life.”

A company with a similar approach is Avorcor, although it prefers the phrase “collaborative selling” as opposed to “social retailing.” Avorcor (of Sterling, Va.) at the show partnered with Gamut Systems (of Chantilly, Va.) to show what it calls Dressing Room Buy.

“Collaborative selling is the convergence of online and face-to-face selling experiences,” said Avorcor CEO JP Morgenthal. “It’s the freedom to explore all the store has to offer from a single access point, such as the dressing room, and then supplement with human assistance automatically when the consumers are ready to touch, see, try on, etc., based on the user’s online choices.”

Back to the more mundane meat and potatoes of retail technology, there were plenty of announcements of new POS units, including slightly updated models from IBM, Dell and HP and a mildly new version of a POS operating system from Microsoft.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at

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