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First Half Tech Recap: Blockchain Buzz Builds, Data Debacles, Cashierless Checkout and More

There’s been no shortage of tech news in the first six months of 2018.

Whether it was blockchain, the GDPR craze or altered reality, here are some of the biggest themes and developments in the year to date.

Blockchain buzz builds

Though blockchain is still best classified as a technology that’s working out its kinks and not fully prepared for widespread, enterprise-class adoption in every instance and application, several companies are building targeted blockchain platforms while brands experiment with blockchain adoption for specific pain points.

Whenever “blockchain” is mentioned, many are quick to point out its potential for transforming supply chains, saving costs, eliminating redundant, manual paperwork and more. Samsung, for one, hopes to save 20 percent by moving its shipping to the blockchain. Noting blockchain’s track record of storing trustworthy information about digital and physical items, others call out the ledger technology’s usefulness in combating counterfeits, which sock brand DeFeet seized upon with a recent deployment.

High-profile brands including Facebook are investigating blockchain, which some have said could disintermediate social networks. Amazon joined a growing list of major tech firms launching blockchain services targeted at enterprises.

There’s plenty of interest in leveraging blockchain to create a new version of retail—one that sidesteps the middle-man markup and connects brands and consumers directly. From SHOP to Shopin and ApolloX, innovators believe that some day soon consumers will have complete control over their valuable personal data, bartering that info with brands in exchange for tokens for use on blockchain-enabled commerce platforms. There’s considerable merit to the idea, especially considering the steady stream of headlines shedding light on just how insecure consumer data remains today—and how retailers can’t be trusted with it.

Data debacles

Speaking of data, the first half of 2018 has been besmirched by data security incidents ranging from the mundane to outright scandal. From Sears and Adidas to Saks and Under Armour, major retailers hemorrhaged millions of consumer data records, including payment card details. Retail data breaches have become somewhat routine at this point.

However, it was a scandal involving Facebook and former partner Cambridge Analytica that really got everyone’s attention, reminding consumers that their data is everywhere and probably being sold without their knowledge. If there was one positive outcome from that Facebook fail, though, it was its role in bringing GDPR to the fore.

GDPR

Before the Facebook scandal broke, no one was talking about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But then the “what ifs?” began. What would have happened if Facebook’s data mishandling occurred after May 25, when GDPR took effect?

GDPR affects any company that has customers residing in the European Union and metes out stiff penalties when consumer data is breached—the greater of 4 percent of global revenue or 20 million euro ($23.4 million) for the most egregious incidents. It also has more strict standards for consent and legitimate interest between business and consumer, which touched off the flurry of “we’re updating our privacy standards” clogging inboxes worldwide.

Because so many companies today operate globally, many updated their data policies and procedures across the board—for consumers in the EU and in the U.S. (and elsewhere). But the run-up to GDPR enforcement saw business scrambling to sort out what exactly they needed to do to comply with the sprawling new regulation, billed as the most significant data legislative update in decades.

In the days just before the compliance deadline, IBM found that just more than one-third of global firms would meet GDPR requirements, while software and services providers teamed up to help companies get their data acts together.

Even the NRF in collaboration with its European counterpart put out an “explainer” paper designed to help retailers understand GDPR and how it affects them.

Though the GDPR deadline is long gone, it could be that some retailers still aren’t compliant—just like many dragged their feet on the deadline for the EMV standard for smart payment cards years ago.

Cashierless checkout

If the tech industry has its way, retail cashier jobs could go extinct. Amazon Go opened in January to great curiosity and acclaim—and proved that stores really can operate without cashiers, even though the convenience-store format has the added advantage of a limited inventory of products to track and restock. Through a sophisticated system of cameras, sensors, artificial intelligence and computer vision, the Go store knows when shoppers pick up or put back any given item and upon exit, automatically charges their Amazon account, which they used to access the store at entrance. There’s even speculation that Amazon could license the Go technology to retailers, effectively monetizing all of that R&D.

Amazon plans to expand the Go concept to new cities this year, but other tech companies are coming up with their own seamless checkout systems, too. AVA retail’s SmoothShop takes a similar approach to Go, while its partner Microsoft raised plenty of eyebrows with rumors that it’s developing a cashierless solution as well. Sock chain Stance worked with Moltin to create an app-less mobile self checkout.

Altered reality

Augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are finding their homes in certain applications for retail. Fast fashion darlings Zara and H&M discovered how AR can engage consumers, using the technology to enliven store windows and create holograms. Instead of focus on how gimmicky the tech can be, Bonobos CMO Micky Onvural called for retailers to use AR and VR to create experiences that e-commerce today can’t match—like seeing how a ski suit performs on the slopes, for example.

PayPal could be working on AR glasses designed to help people shop better—reviving the largely defunct smart glasses category.

Brands are seizing upon VR’s ability to create compelling, immersive experiences. First, Walmart acquired VR startup Spatialand, then it announced that it’s using VR to better portray a curated selection of home products. Also, a newly announced, in-development $500-million digital mall plans to use VR to help participating brands bring their “stores” to life online.

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