Shoptalk 2019 Brought Big Retail Tech to Any Company That Wants It

In the retail world, there's a handful of big players that can invest heavily in technology. The rest of the competitors lag behind and either can only pick their spots or have to wait until technology becomes available from third parties. At Shoptalk 2019, a number of vendors had technology for sale that offered functionality that was previously only available to Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Walmart (NYSE: WMT), and a handful of other players.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 12, 2019.

Nick Sciple: Now, Dan, we teased this off the top of the show. I want to talk a little bit now about Shoptalk, where you visited in Vegas last week. First off the bat, you mentioned some of the trends coming out of the conference off the top of the show. What got you most excited that you saw at Shoptalk last week?

Dan Kline: You can see now that the retail space has fragmented. I don't want to say winners and losers, but there's the big boys and everybody else. And by big boys, I mean there's Amazon, There's Target, there's Walmart, there's a couple of major grocery chains. There's maybe one or two outliers like Costco that don't have to play in the same sandbox as everybody else. But then, almost every other retailer lacks the resources to innovate.

Walmart, which calls itself a technology company as often as it calls itself a retailer, can invent the in-store kiosk and play with it and test it over a year. Target can buy shipped and figure out same-day shipping. Amazon, obviously, trying out drones and who knows what level of AI technology to predict that, you don't even know this, Nick, but tomorrow, you want blueberry scones, and one will be sitting on your desk when you get there.

So at the show, I saw a lot of third-party technology companies that were offering technology that -- I hate to say looked at what Walmart, Target, and Amazon have done right, and they copied it. There were kiosks, white-label kiosks you could buy to put in your store. I was really interested in a company that offered flexible warehousing space, sold like the cloud. Meaning, if you and I want to bring in a container of Motley Fool harmonicas to try to sell at Christmas time next year -- I'm not sure we'd be allowed to do that, but if we did -- we could rent the warehouse space and literally only pay for it while we were using it, and only for the services we needed. If we needed shipping, that would be there. If we needed unpacking or all the customs work, or if we just needed a place to put our box, you could get that sort of the same way you pay for the cloud, which is a consumption model.

I saw things like that for trucking, for payments, to give smaller players flexibility. One of the examples I'll give came from meeting with FLEX, the warehouse company. A home improvement chain, say, Ace Hardware, which is effectively a national buying group, could look and say, "I want to have a bunch of rock salt and snow blowers in New England because it's winter." And they only need those there for a few months. They're going to sell out, they know. They don't have to cram them in the back of their stores or leave tractor trailers in their parking lot or rent ridiculously expensive warehouse space. There's a lot of tools that allow mom-and-pop retailers, and Macy's, and pretty big chains, to do what Amazon and Walmart do, on a six-month trailing basis. Which, if employed correctly, could make more companies competitive, at least in some places.

Sciple: Right. This is a trend we're starting to see -- you mentioned cloud -- where, these resources, whether for cloud, it's computer operating bandwidth, or for logistics, access to trucking and warehouses, these things that, up to today, would have required a significant fixed-cost investment that blocked them off to folks outside of the largest folks in these industries. But now we're seeing these companies rise up to provide those offerings at a lower cost to the also-rans in these industries, like you mentioned. It's really exciting.

Kline: We talked about it as we prepped the show, it used to be that only a Starbucks could have an app as sophisticated as they do, that lets you order and mobile payment. Well, there's white-label apps that do that now. Any restaurant can offer that. Gift cards used to be something that a regular retail store could only do in a physical format, they could not do in the digital tracking. Well, that's available. At Shoptalk, you saw very high-end trucking solutions. A company could manage all its orders, and instead of just working with three or four partners, they could find the exact best partner for every place something was going to go to, and know which of their warehouses to ship it out of, which of their stores, and do things as inexpensively as possible. You might never get as cheap as Amazon gets it. You're never going to have the scale. But if Amazon is 60% of the market and somebody can roll up through all these small companies 10%, 15%, it at least gives you the critical mass to be in the ballpark.

Sciple: Dan, when you look at the opportunities that this new technology is going to open up and these new offerings from the start-ups that you spoke with at Shoptalk, is this something that's going to let these companies come up and challenge Amazon's position? Or is this something that's just going to let these smaller players continue to exist in this new normal of retail?

Kline: Continue to exist and in some cases compete well. I live in a market where Publix is everywhere. It's a privately held grocery store chain. There's one every mile and a half in Florida. Publix can probably not invest the same amount of money as Walmart in automating grocery delivery. They certainly aren't going to spend the money doing it to figure out if people want grocery delivery. As the bigger companies establish the market, one of the companies I saw that I know Matt talked about yesterday, offered a 10,000 square foot back-of-the-store solution where you could take existing floor space and put in this automated, cart-driven grocery picker. Some human labor, but it takes a lot of the cost out of it. And you could, from one store, service a whole region. Well, if Walmart and Target prove that this market I'm in wants two-hour grocery delivery, then that investment can be made by Publix without them having to research it, without them having to invent the wheel themselves. That is a huge way to stay competitive.

I don't think consumers, as technology is getting tested -- I use Instacart and I get two-hour delivery all the time, but I don't think that's the norm in my market. It's not like you're going to walk into a grocery store and be like, "Ugh, you don't have two-hour delivery? I'm leaving!" But at some point, that might be the expectation, and they'll be able to offer all of these tools.

Sciple: Sure. So, that answers the question what role these tools and these start-ups might play to the businesses that are already operating and competing against Amazon and Walmart. The follow-up question I have for you is, for these start-ups themselves and the companies developing this technology, as we look out into the future, is this going to be something that investors might have an opportunity to invest in, in the public markets? Or do you think these start-ups are going to be acquired by these middle-tier businesses and be attached onto existing businesses to make them be able to compete more closely with Amazon or Walmart? Or do you think these companies are going to exist on their own?

Kline: If I was Amazon and Walmart, I would have been walking around these start-up areas in Shoptalk -- and there were a couple of them -- with a checkbook and trying to take players out of the game, and have some of this technology, put it into my incubation system, and see what lives and what doesn't. Some of the more mature companies, like the grocery store fulfillment company that I was talking about before, which actually has customers and product in the field, I think their goal is to be bought. Ideally, they're going to be bought by one of the big boys, because that's where the biggest money is. But if you make in-store kiosks, and the whole retail market decides that buy-online-pick-up-in-store via a kiosk is the way to go, what's your total market? 60,000 stores? 30,000 stores? 100,000 stores? I don't know the number, but it's a very finite market. Once you've sold that product, you become a company like Brunswick. You sell the bowling lane and then you sell them, I don't know, alley wax and repairs until you invent something else. It's a very tough business to be in. So, yes, I think they're all hoping Amazon buys them.

Sciple: It's an exciting area of the market to watch because it's still developing. The whole idea of e-commerce and online ordering is only a little over 20 years old. We're still seeing businesses adapt to play in this market.

Dan, based on what you've learned in the last week and your knowledge of the industry, if we come back here and have this conversation in five years, how do you think the technology that's being developed today is going to change retail in the future? How should investors think about that?

Kline: Back-end automation is a reality. You are not going to have as much or any human factor in warehousing, picking orders, all of that should be -- it's not going to be 100%. A robot is probably not going to pack your order into the final bag for, say, groceries. But they're going to do an awful lot of it. You're not going to see as much front-of-house automation as you think. Consumers have shown some reticence to self-checkout. They're fully aware of the bagger who's not getting employed with that. So I think there's going to be limits to that. Maybe there'll be some in-store help that's automated, but for the most part, you're going to see the back end get automated, and you're going to see some level of inventory control, move to RFID and other methods. In a big chain like Walmart, there's no human who's going, "We need more Cheerios!" You're going to see that become commonplace at pretty much every store, as that technology is baked into your Square or QuickBooks CMS, your very basic models of in-store point-of-sale system.

Sciple: I'll say, as a consumer myself, all these developments are really exciting because, to me, you look at creating all this access to delivery and convenience and reducing waste, which is probably both good for the environment and lowering prices, which is great for me as a consumer. I'm really excited about all these new developments we're seeing with both logistics and enabling online ordering.

I will say, I'm a little bit skeptical about how much value this is going to create for investors. I think this is more going to be something that creates consumer surplus more than it is for the producers. What are your thoughts on that, Dan?

Kline: If Amazon stamps out most of its competition and only has to worry about Walmart, Target, and a couple of other players, they can start raising prices. You want to see the ability for, even if it's a niche player, even if it's a company that sells high-end NFL-branded cigars, if they can have efficient delivery and sourcing and all of the back-end things -- I recognize that that's a preposterous example of a company -- instead of you going to Amazon and buying a low-end version of that product, and that company doesn't have to charge you $39.99 for shipping because they can say, "You want it tomorrow? $29.99. Want it in three days? $15.99. You're willing to wait until whenever? $2.99." All of that technology was on display at this show. I think that will make the Amazons, Targets, Walmarts work harder. They will really start to create some of the things we've talked about on this show -- better methods of sizing you, so you don't have to go into a store to buy a shirt; the ability to tell me that the outfit I'm buying online is a poor choice for me using an AI system; or whatever it is.

If you stopped now, and only the big players have access to this technology, you'd see a lot of small players go away, and the big players would get fat and lazy. So at least this keeps it competitive.

Sciple: Right. Where competition takes place, consumers a lot of times end up being the winner there.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Nick Sciple owns shares of Square. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Square. The Motley Fool recommends Costco Wholesale. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.