It’s been well over a decade since I wrote about the Visual Attention Service (VAS), 3M’s almost magical-sounding software that simulates how people perceive ads, enabling designers to ensure that viewers notice the most important information first and foremost. So, I was intrigued by a Business Insider article on a relatively new (since 2019) New York startup called Marpipe, “the world’s first independent MarTech platform that automates the creative testing process for brands \u0026amp; agencies.” Basically, Marpipe enables creatives to automatically test hundreds of variations of an ad by tweaking the copy and images, and then launching controlled multivariate tests on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.According to the founder, Marpipe was originally built to solve problems within his own agency, but after showing it to companies like Adobe, he was able to raise enough money to deliver it to clients as a freemium platform. Marpipe also takes pains to differentiate itself from Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO), a similar programmatic advertising capability, noting that DCO is used for creative scaling while multivariate testing with Marpipe is for creative testing.In early August, Boston-based Reebok began rolling out “Courting Greatness,” a campaign focused on creating playable basketball spaces where they may not exist. The campaign employs a digital tool that utilizes augmented reality (AR) to help players map out court features on walls and fences in, for example, parking lots and alleyways. Using camera and measurement features already embedded in most mobile phones, the “Courting Greatness” AR tool enables users to map out (at least roughly) the dimensions of a court. Users stand 10 to 20 feet away from a surface, point the phone and line up where it meets the street. Then using chalk or tape, they can mark the boundaries of the court, including the free-throw line, 10-foot hoop and 3-point line.In late-September, Redwood City, California-based Firework, a short-form video platform, announced a partnership with Albertsons Cos. that will make it the first U.S. grocer to utilize its platform. Firework, which has raised more than $100 million in venture capital, claims that this “shoppertainment” platform already powers more than 600 DTC brands, retailers and media publishers worldwide. In the first phase of a three-step rollout, Albertsons will deploy short video content and cooking experiences on its various banners, and then expand offerings and experiences in 2022. Firework clients can create, host and curate TikTok-like experiences designed to promote product discovery and swipe-able, shoppable interactivity. The idea is to engage and monetize a community around these short-form videos yet also maintain autonomy and control over it.Over the summer, Austin, Texas-based Oveit launched a live-stream shopping solution, Streams.Live, in the U.S. The Streams.Live tool, which can be configured into any seller’s website, operates like this: Shoppers watch as a retailer or a spokesperson gives a live, interactive, online presentation of their products. Shoppers can ask questions, share thoughts with other users and, at the moment of choice, purchase with a click. Oveit claims that shoppers spend three times more time watching live content than pre-recorded video. The Streams.Live platform incorporates AI including language and mood analysis. Using this data, a retailer can obtain insights that enable them to better calibrate future sessions.Shopping for your pet is becoming social, according to the developers of Puppy, a mobile app-based marketplace for use with Shopify sellers. It works like this: Shopify pet product merchants, once they’re vetted by Puppy’s developers, should list each of their products with a video, and offer a “group buy” discount option. Shoppers who use the app will then swipe through products, indicating what they like and what they dislike (a little like Tinder) while deciding what to buy. When a shopper likes an item with other shoppers, they’re then grouped together to buy it at the discount price. Puppy’s developers claim that the group discounts can range from 10% to 65%.One of the few bits of financial wisdom my father gave me was, “Never buy groceries on credit.” Still seems like sound advice, but a new app from San Diego-based Zebit, a “Buy Now, Pay Later” (BNPL) e-commerce platform, is turning that notion on its head. Zebit’s business model is to serve consumers with credit scores so low they can’t access traditional methods of payment financing — and it claims there are 120 million of them out there. Zebit is said to be the only e-commerce company that allows purchasers to make a 25% down payment on purchases across 100,000 products and finance the remaining amount over six months. This online merchant platform runs on an inventory-light model, acting as a distributor for 80 different drop-ship partners who pack and ship products on-demand for sales made through the Zebit platform.In late September, Amazon expanded its Halo membership program, introducing Halo View (a Halo armband with a screen); Halo Fitness, a service with hundreds of workouts with real-time individual performance metrics; and Halo Nutrition, recipes and tools for personalized meal planning designed to reshape the user’s eating habits. Halo Nutrition, which will roll out in early 2022, lets users browse a library of more than 500 recipes from partners including WW (formerly Weight Watchers), Lifesum and Whole Foods Market. Users can customize their choices to account for allergies and preferences, build a tailored meal plan, or select from one of seven curated menus tailored to the member’s personal preferences: classic, keto, Mediterranean, Nordic, paleo, vegan and vegetarian. They can then add the ingredients and groceries required to an existing Alexa shopping list, effectively enabling Amazon to consolidate all their grocery needs in one shopping space.People still queue up outdoors and overnight in long lines to buy everything from Krispy Kreme to Air Jordans. While it won’t help with donuts, a new app has been released for us less-rugged shoppers who’d rather track down difficult-to-obtain merchandise and limited-release items through e-commerce websites. Cardinal iOS — a $19.99 app (and at that price, I didn’t test drive it) — claims to help shoppers “secure every drop” by enabling quick checkout on certain websites (and also boasts that it outpaces the other autofill extensions and automation software that’s on the market). The user saves all necessary information in the app in advance and, when it’s time, it fills in the checkout page at “lightning-fast” speed. Cardinal is said to support all Shopify stores, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Finish Line, Sneakers.com, Funko and Squarespace, although the developers stress that they do not work directly with any of the mentioned brands or retailers.SPOTLIGHT: Retail ExecutionIn July, Braintree, Massachusetts-based Form, a field-execution platform, announced its acquisition of ShelfWise, a retail-shelf image-recognition platform. “ShelfWise by Form” will function as an integrated task-management and image-recognition platform to make in-store data collection faster and more reliable. Enabling reps to automatically capture images of products on mobile eliminates manual data collection and the compilation of lengthy reports on spreadsheets after store visits. An algorithm analyzes data at the brand, SKU and UPC levels, including facings, out-of-stocks, shelf share, and pricing and positioning. The company claims its technology can audit more display types (shelves, displays, cold boxes, drink coolers and menus) than its competitors.Chalk up another win for our future robot overlords (just kidding): In late-August, St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets announced that it is the planet’s first grocer to utilize AI-powered inventory management technology at scale. The culmination of a multi-year, full-scale rollout has brought Tally robots from Simbe Robotics to all 111 Schnucks locations across the U.S. Schnucks first piloted the robots in July 2017. They traverse store aisles up to three times per day and capture on-shelf data, including inventory position, price accuracy and promotional execution. They are said to detect 14 times more addressable out-of-stocks than manual scans.This past spring, Nicholasville, Kentucky-based Badger Technologies began conducting retail tests of its “UV Disinfect Robot,” an autonomous device designed to combat COVID-19 and other high-risk pathogens commonly found in grocery and other retail environments. Early testing of the robot, which uses UV-C technology, indicates that it achieves 99% inactivation of coronaviruses, E.coli, salmonella enterica and influenza A. It can decontaminate 40,000 square feet in about two hours. Badger Technologies, a product division of Jabil, also offers Retail inSight, a shelf-scanning robot that addresses out-of-stock, planogram compliance and price integrity issues.Eventually drones will be buzzing above us everywhere, both inside and out. That day may be even sooner than imagined in warehouse retail, according to FlytBase, a California-based company that manages “inventory drones” in Very Narrow Aisles (VNAs). Everyone wants to max out warehouse space, so FlytWare now has QR- and barcode-scanning drones hovering day and night in VNAs as narrow as 6-feet wide and up racks as tall as 40-feet high. That’s where manual, and even most automated, inventory checking becomes impractical.Over the summer, San Francisco-based RobotLAB launched a cost-effective, AI-powered robotics package for small and medium businesses, enabling them to automate repetitive customer-service tasks, such as providing product descriptions and recommendations, offering directions or delivering an automated receptionist service. RobotLAB’s package is integrated into the Pepper Robot made by SoftBank Robotics. Standing 4-feet tall, Pepper can perceive an environment and enter into conversation when it sees a person. A touchscreen displays content to highlight messages and support speech.