At the turn of the century, we could envision how technology would shape our future, but finally in 2015, it is feeling a whole lot more like the technically advanced (Jetsons?) future we were originally contemplating. From the Wall Street Journal's Christopher Mims' prediction that the Apple Watch could spawn the next billion dollar start-ups to the latest health care gadgets that turn your iPhone into a electrocardiogram, urinalysis reader and future drug testing device. There was no shortage of cool gadgetry showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

But for anyone with a retail storefront, the National Retail Federation (NRF) was the place to see what technologies will shape the future of retail. And this year, there were several companies presenting some mind-bending technologies with incredibly practical and profitable applications. These technologies could best be grouped into three segments:

Context & Proximity Marketing via the Internet of Things
In a previous article I talked about how proximity marketing and the age of context has over-taken the previous formula of "content is king". In short, connecting things to the Internet help provide more and more context and that relevancy is shaping how we engage in the real world. For years, Amazon has profited from its product engine, "People who bought this item, also purchased ..." and yet physical retailers have struggled to take advantage of this more than decade-old technology. Until now.

Zebra Technologies showcased a fascinating smart mirror technology that is poised to transform the typically boring (1970's style) changing rooms which themselves haven't changed much in the past few decades. The mirror could be turned on and instantly double as a giant touch screen. The more integrated this mirror was with your preferences, loyalty program and previous purchase history, the more useful it would become. When searching for a particular item of clothing, the mirror would pull up all relevant and available inventory along with additional insights such as "best-selling" and, of course, a recommendation engine leveraging the Amazon equivalent of "people who bought this also bought ..."

Digital Fitting Room

At MediaPost's inaugural iBeacon's conference last year it was disclosed that fashion retailers had discovered that customers had as much as a 50% higher purchase rate for clothes that they actually try on. This helped re-energize sales associates to encourage customers to try on the items they are considering. I believe a high tech changing room that includes a smart mirror like the one Zebra Technologies was showcasing will encourage more people to spend more time in the changing rooms which should result in even higher sales for clothing retailers.

Leveraging the Power of Social+Mobile+Local (SoMoLo)
Individually, Social Media, Mobile Marketing and Local Marketing are all powerful. But when combined, SoMoLo is changing the way businesses are thinking about how they go to market. While the concept of SoMoLo is not new, its adoption by retailers has been rather slow. That's likely to change if technology partners such as IBM have anything to say about it. As a top-tier sponsor at NRF, IBM spared no expense showcasing their vision of how to extract social media insights from your best customers. Their platform allows you to simply and efficiently pull in your customer's photo and video streams and analyze the real-time trends that emerge. These trends can then be leveraged to create social media and mobile marketing campaigns that entice repeat purchase behavior by driving current customers back into your store. They even are integrating marketing messages with iBeacon technology (see next section) so that retailers can tie all of these elements together. As more retailers adopt IBM's platform, we're going to see better real-time integration of SoMoLo and increased sales as a result.

Digital Path to Purchase via Beacons
If you haven't read my whitepaper or seen my last article on beacons, you may not be familiar with this game-changing technology. With more than 20 years in digital marketing, I'm not someone who is easily impressed by technology, nor swayed by the sales teams incentivized to promote the latest advancements. That said, I'm incredibly bullish when it comes to the future of retail powered by beacons technology. Simply put, beacons unlock the best of digital marketing at retail. We already know people shop with their smartphones--the difference is how retailers will engage with their customers using a beacons framework.

When it came to the many discussions of how retail would be impacted in 2015 and beyond, you would be hard pressed to find a booth at NRF that wasn't aware of and/or actively discussing how their solution leveraged beacons technology in some way. From enhanced point of sale to self-check-out to engaging customers to heat mapping store traffic--nearly every vendor had come up with a way to tie this technology to their solution--and for good reason. Beacons are poised to unlock much of the best practices that ecommerce companies have been using for years. This includes knowing who your customers are as they shop in your store, more real-time insights regarding inventory management and several other promises associated with big data. For more on this topic, download my whitepaper or join me in Chicago on February 10th for Media Post's next IOT Beacons conference.

In the meantime if you think I missed any major trends at this year's NRF, please feel free to ping me on Twitter or post your comments below. Conferences like CES and NRF are massive and while I do my best to share my insights, I fully admit that I'm only capturing a fraction of what's happening at these massive events.

Published on: Jan 14, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.