When you think of some of the more forward thinking industries when it comes to technology do you think of retail?

I don’t -- one reason I was particularly interested in attending the National Retail Foundation expo in its 100th installment. The New York City event with over 18,500 attendees is the biggest retail event of the year started on Sunday the 9th and ends Wednesday the 12th, currently unfolding at the Javitz Center.

The conference covers mobile strategies, store operations, global outlook, sustainability, technology, digital retailing, supply chain management and the list goes on.

(NRF T.V.-Expo Intro Video)

Mining and Managing Unstructured Data

Many retailers are operating without collaboration tools. At NRF today we heard a panel session sponsored by DemandTec that focused on brands partnering with vendors and sharing data. They discussed leveraging communities for marketing. The panel featured Shelley Hyytinen of Target who said Target has looked at their social customer for the last “15 years.”

Hyytinen discussed some of what is known as social CRM, but admitted to struggling with mining for unstructured data. Most companies have not even achieved the social business maturity of Target. But they are setting out on their social business journey. The panel also featured Doug Knudsen of ConAgra Foods and Rob Culin of DemandTec, Inc.

It’s no secret that many retailers struggle with exactly what Hyytinen of Target mentioned: mining and managing large amounts of unstructured customer data.

Change Management

Today we heard a keynote from Dan Heath, author of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Heath had an introduction from Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s. Heath’s session was a highlight of the event. His content on change management conjured social business challenges; without specifically mentioning “social business” in his talk.

Heath told a room of roughly 1000 people yesterday afternoon, "The consumer is motivated by emotion." Heath is someone who studies change and behavioral patterns. His first book was Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. During his keynote today he reminded the audience of retailers, "If you want change then failure is part of the deal." The #NRF11 tweet-stream was bustling. One re-tweet from Heath’s talk from attendee @CA_Rose, “If we want to change, change the question. Don't ask what's broken & how do we fix it. Ask: “what's working and how do we clone it?” While we know social business campaigns can’t necessarily be cloned, the idea is to think about the strengths of the business and how to create more of them.

The State of Retail Today

Retail employment numbers are down. In a report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 14.4 million people were employed in the U.S. Retail Industry as of April 2010.

Although retail employment was increasing every month at the beginning of 2010, retail employment numbers were still the lowest they've been for the past decade. Due to the steep drop in retail jobs and the increase in overall unemployment, the retail job market in 2010 is extremely competitive at all levels.

In today’s economy the sheer magnitude of the retail operation is immense and complicated. Coming from a technology perspective, it’s hard to say that any company would not benefit from having better social customer relationship management technology and processes.

The process of creating, distributing and managing the production, handoff and distribution of so many goods could be improved with better technology to manage the internal operation as well as the “social customer.”

Many companies don’t have a modern technology system for managing the process of inventory, disaster planning and understanding better formats to compete with pricing sites like Amazon, Ebay and Froogle. That means less retail locations are needed, and more focus on multi-channel shopping, location based marketing campaigns and other customer loyalty programs.

The Smart Phone Changes the Face of Retail

This week at the NRF event we are seeing a lot of sessions touch on the topic of mobile.

Two stand-out sessions on this topic include speaker Arunabh Das Sharma’s Whirlpool Corporation Ad Center Case study, “Marketing to the Mobile Shopper.” Sharma will be joined by William Rosen of Arc Worldwide.

Another mobile session is “Avoiding the Mobile Me-Too Trap: Differentiating to Win” presented by Denise Wang of Walgreens, Phil McKoy of Target Corporation, Pratik Pal of Tata Consultancy Services moderated by Joe Skorupa of RIS News.

Mobile apps that put the pricing power in the hands of the consumer are popping up right and left. Ebay has a new smart phone application wherein the customer can easily access competitive pricing info from anywhere.

Other companies are coming up with new ways to leverage the smart phone such as Fooducate. Fooducate is a website dedicated to helping consumers eat healthier, and has launched a new iPhone app that allows the consumer to scan or type in a bar code and receive an overall grade rating for a product. The grade is based on certain "bad" ingredients -- too much sugar and salt, too many additives, too much high-fructose corn syrup, etc. This puts new pressures on food producers to be more conscious of ingredients.

Today’s customer has options, and retailers need to start adjusting to this consumer behavior. Stay tuned for more reporting from the expo! Follow me @blakelandau for #NRF11