At this year’s event in Las Vegas, retailers, vendors and media were buzzing about the debut of the Innovation Lab. This special section of the exhibitor floor included a carefully selected ensemble of 30 retail technology companies that the National Retail Federation (NRF) believes will define the next generation of both in-store and e-commerce shopping experiences. The level of traffic and interest in the Innovation Lab underscores how eager global retailers are to learn more about breakthrough technologies that will help them solve some of the industry’s toughest challenges.

What made the Innovation Lab so unique compared to other retail trade shows was the way in which providers were organized by the four segments of the consumer shopping journey: Awareness, Consideration, Engagement, Logistics and Loyalty. Each segment of the journey presents specific challenges to retailers, so grouping retail tech providers to mirror them made it much easier to search and evaluate based on which segments of the customer journey require the most support.

Flow was one of the solution providers representing the Engagement category. The providers in this section showcased convenience and personalization tools built to deepen brand connections and enable frictionless checkout. According to the NRF blog previewing the Innovation Lab, these Engagement providers are “helping make the checkout experience uber-fast, easy and fun. Successful brands and retailers are more aware than ever that a customized checkout experience is the key to building brand loyalty. This is especially true for global e-commerce brands and retailers, who can gain a competitive advantage in international markets by offering localized online shopping experiences that extend to checkout, returns and loyalty programs in each region.

Our expert team at Flow was excited to get to know some of the other providers who shared the Engagement section in the Innovation Lab. We talked with companies who were demonstrating exciting new solutions for just about all aspects of the customer engagement phase, including mobile and in-store payments, receipts, and returns. For example, MishiPay offers a mobile app that allows in-store shoppers to scan an item, pay with their smartphones and leave a store without ever waiting in line. RetailDeep utilizes facial recognition to identify customers instead of loyalty cards, so retailers can personalize that customer’s checkout experience in real time. One company in particular, ZigZag Global, offered an interesting new global returns management solution that tracks returns around the world but also offers technology for reselling and redistribution of goods that have been returned. We at Flow expect to see a lot more about these emerging brands in the future.

How Innovation Comes from Partnerships

Another hot topic at was collaboration and partnerships. Many of the speakers were focused on how partnerships can inspire greater innovation that can ultimately improve the shopper’s experience, both in-store and online. The big question asked in many of the keynotes and speaker sessions was, “How do you partner to make the sum larger than the whole of the parts?”

This idea was explored in one of the best presentations of the show, titled “Cashing in on strategic cross-industry collaboration.” It was one of the Fast Company Sessions that examined the partnership between Buzzfeed’s Tasty food site and Sue’s Tech Kitchen, a family-friendly, traveling digital media exhibit created by Randi Zuckerberg that demonstrates the link between STEM education and the next generation of dining and food preparation — think robots delivering pancakes.

The session was moderated by Fast Company Journalist Sean Captain and featured Talia Halperin, general manager of Buzzfeed’s media brands, including Tasty, and Randi Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media and creator of Sue’s Tech Kitchen. Tasty started out as an online media outlet where Buzzfeed could maximize years’ worth of food-related articles and popular cooking tutorial videos and recipes. But through collaborations like the one with Sue’s Tech Kitchen, Tasty has become its own powerful media entity that transcends beyond food videos. This isn’t Tasty’s only collaboration; they also partnered with Wal-Mart to sell a line of Tasty-branded cookware earlier this year.

For brands and retailers who are thinking of collaborating, Zuckerberg had this advice: “It’s important to decide about the goals of the collaboration, and then build upon these goals. It’s important to delight customers with positive experiences, and it should never be about how to make the most money.” She added that creating awe-inspiring experiences with stories that educate and invite consumers to have an emotional response is vital.

Customer Experience Drives Retail Success

The biggest take-away from the discussions on collaborative partnerships, as well as the conversations within the Innovation Lab, is that brands and retailers who are focused on providing customers the best shopping experience possible will thrive, even in a highly competitive and ever-changing retail environment. Brands and retailers who make strategic investments in innovative technology that improves the overall shopping experience will be the ones who beat their competitors — not just in the US, but globally.

Did you miss this year’s conference in Las Vegas? Or, were you at but didn’t get a chance to see a live demo of Flow’s cross border e-commerce platform at the Innovation Lab? You can still request a demo from our experts. If you were inspired by the innovation and collaboration stories coming out of and are ready to find a partner who can help your brand enter new e-commerce markets, check out our new International E-commerce Kit for more resources.