In retail, one of the things we talk about a lot these days is “disruption.” That’s the new buzzword for upending the way business was done in the past, as innovations lead us into the way business will be done in the future. And one of the most powerful disruptions is technology.

Taking things forward

To some, disruption might not sound like a positive. But in a business context, disruption shakes up the status quo. When a new technology disrupts a product or a business, it often replaces old inefficiencies and makes things better and stronger than they were before.

Technology was one of the top issues this year at Retail’s BIG Show in New York City, an annual conference of nearly 35,000 retailers from around the world. During the conference, retailers thronged to learn how 3-D printers can let retailers create merchandise as easily as printing a letter, or how drones will soon be used to deliver merchandise. The Internet of Things, where a refrigerator can automatically order milk or a washing machine can order detergent, was also a hot topic.

Plans for this year

2017 could be the year when many of these technologies that have been in startup mode will begin to become reality. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality might not be taking over completely, but they are starting to emerge. And we are at the point where consumer expectations are rising and influencing how retailers who want to stay on top must interact with their customers.

One of consumers’ biggest demands is a seamless shopping experience, regardless of whether they are standing in a retailer’s store, sitting at a computer or holding their mobile device. That means the technology behind a brand’s physical stores, websites and apps needs to work in perfect sync.

If the web says an item is in stock at a store, it needs to be there when the customer shows up. If something bought online doesn’t work, the customer wants to be able to return it at the store. If next-day shipping isn’t soon enough, picking up in-store should be an option. If the mobile app says the store is open, it had better be open.

“Technology isn’t just the 'what' of the future, it’s the 'who' of the future.”

Answering smarter shoppers

Retailers must be able to answer consumers’ questions about the products they sell, and one of the ways technology helps with that is through chat bots. These are computer programs that use a form of artificial intelligence to give the customer a human-sounding conversation, either through spoken-word audio or via text.

TV shopping, a predecessor to online shopping, is being reborn with fully shoppable programs, where everything seen is available for purchase with the click of a mouse or a tap on a touchscreen. Similarly, social media is increasingly full of opportunities to buy.

In-store, retailers are using technology like “Li-Fi” that transmits data via LED lightbulbs rather than radio-based Wi-Fi. Mobile payments are becoming more popular, along with mobile point-of-sale terminals on tablets or smartphones that let sales associates go to the customer and avoid the need to stand in long checkout lines.

New retail jobs

And with retail using all this technology, the world of retail jobs is changing as well. Retailers don’t just buy gadgets off the shelf and use them. Retailers today operate their own innovation labs to come up with the latest in cutting edge technology. That means they are hiring engineers, software designers and social media experts. Technology isn’t just the “what” of the future, it’s the “who” of the future.

From the days of the general store to paper catalogs to online shopping, retailers have always been constantly reinventing themselves. With technology, the pace of that reinvention has accelerated to a level that’s never been seen before.