NRF Expo: The 4 Coolest Things We Saw at Retail's BIG Show's BIG Show -- the annual retail industry conference run by the National Retail Federation -- tends to be fairly scant on consumer-facing innovations. Much of the floor space is dedicated to third-party service providers pitching their wares to retail executives. (Think retail analytics software, tools for minimizing shoplifting and the latest advances in barcode scanner technology, and you'll be on the right track.) It's interesting to retailers looking to cut down on costs or improve customer retention, but there's not much for consumers to get excited about.

Still, there were still some cool technologies on display at the conference. Here are a few that caught our eye.

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NRF Expo: The 4 Coolest Things We Saw at Retail's BIG Show

When we first laid eyes on this beauty, we got our hopes up that you could toss a present in one and have it come out the other side fully wrapped. The reality isn't quite so futuristic, but it was still pretty cool: The 500-pound machine instantly scanned the height, width and length of the package, and the dimensions were automatically fed into the machine, which cut a perfect-sized piece of wrapping paper. The operator then nimbly wrapped the present, with no paper wasted (and no excess material bunched up in an ugly mess at the ends). The whole process took maybe 25 seconds.

The company, Gift Wrap Solutions, mainly sells the machines to retailers (including Macy's, Target and Hammacher Schlemmer) who use them to support their online channels. When you select the $3.99 gift-wrap option at checkout, an employee might be using one of these bad boys to wrap your gift and six others in the time it would've taken you to find the scissors.

This isn't what digital signage company Evogence was calling its nifty kiosk software, but I thought it an apt description for the service it delivers to customers. In the example pictured above, customers at a liquor store can use the touchscreen to select a type of liquor, which brings up a list of cocktails that can be made with it. It's a digitally assisted upsell: "I noticed you were checking out vodka. Why not buy some Kahlua and fix yourself a White Russian?"

Another application on display simplified in-store eyeglasses shopping by using the kinds of product filters normally seen only on e-commerce sites. Sure, you could tell a salesman that you want large, black, rectangular glasses made out of titanium, and then wait for him to pick out all the pairs that meet that criteria. Or you could just spend 20 seconds selecting those criteria on a touchscreen and instantly see the glasses that fit that description.

You can get soda, candy and even microwaveable meals out of vending machines. Now, how about headphones, speakers and smartphone covers?

That's the idea behind Best Buy Express, a giant automated kiosk from ZoomSystems. A senior vice president with the company explained that kiosks of this sort are often placed in airports, allowing travelers who forgot to pack certain small electronics to grab them at in-store prices. Best Buy gets to expand its reach into areas where a full store wouldn't fit, and doesn't have to pay an employee to man the cash register.

Hundreds of similar kiosks already exist in airports, malls and department stores, so you may have already seen one in action. But here's one thing you probably haven't seen on the kiosks: Ads tailored to the person walking by. The ZoomSystems representative explained that a camera on its kiosks will scan each person looking at it, determine their gender and age, then deliver a demographically-targeted advertisement.

Ever wanted to give a company a piece of your mind, but don't feel like filling in a customer service survey or writing a scathing review on Yelp? One Finnish company is aiming to take customer feedback and boil it down to its most basic elements: happy faces and sad faces.

I'd explain how HappyOrNot works, but it's pretty intuitive, and that's the point: When you check out or conclude some other business that involves a customer service interaction, you press a button to express how satisfied you were.

"It's a very simple and easy way [to give feedback]," said Todd Thiesen, sales director for HappyOrNot. "You understand it at a glance." More importantly, he says, the speed and ease of use makes customers a lot more likely to give feedback: About 20% of the customers will use such a terminal when given the chance.

If there's one downside, it's that it doesn't allow customers to be specific about what they did and didn't like. Management can find out many satisfaction statistics, but can't know why you hit the "sad" button. Still, Thiesen says companies using the system do see improvement in satisfaction levels over time.


Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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