If the first two days of the National Retail Federation Big Show were all about customer engagement, the third was all about bridging the gap between online and offline commerce and making the in-store shopping experience less boring.

“Physical retail is stuck in its own mud,” said Christian Davies, Executive Creative Director of FITCH, a retail consultancy. “It’s the opposite of agility.” Christmas holiday foot traffic, particularly among millennials, has dropped consistently over the past few years, he said. “That’s what happens when shoppers are bored.”

“In order to not just survive but thrive, we must make physical shopping experiences much more exciting, relevant and competitive,” said Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of John Lewis Partnership, a multibillion dollar UK-based company which operates department and supermarkets.

Retailers, consultants and thought leaders agreed that stores need to evolve in two very important ways: one is that retailers need to create a consistent online/offline shopping experience so that shoppers can seamlessly move between channels; the other is that stores themselves must evolve to include technology that brings them into the always-connected digital age.

Even a savvy omnichannel (there’s that term!) retailer like Pier 1 Imports, where over 30% of ecommerce orders are picked up in store, 30% of ecommerce orders are placed in the store and associates and shoppers have real time visibility into inventory, lacks the capability to truly tie it all together.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Andrew Laudato, CIO and Senior Vice President of Pier 1.

It’s one thing to enable click and collect, experts said, but quite another to recognize shoppers across channels, deliver relevant promotions and content across channels, save shopping carts between channels and integrate point-of-sale and ecommerce systems.

But the blending of online and offline must occur. Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, when asked what has the greatest potential to disrupt the retail industry, replied, “The convergence of online and offline and the inability to adapt to rapid change.”

Evolving the Store

From a practical standpoint, the store experience itself was described as uninspiring, unappealing, and “old school.” That’s perhaps not surprising since “stores haven’t fundamentally changed in 100 years,” said Bernardine Wu, CEO of FitForCommerce.

That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it’s fair to say that physical stores are in dire need of a massive overhaul, including providing digital shopping tools like kiosks, QR codes and interactive displays.

One example: NYX Cosmetics and Olapic demonstrated how customers can scan a makeup product in its stores and be shown ways to wear the product, and how the product looks on others.

In general, stores have not done a good job accommodating young, tech-savvy consumers. According to Deloitte Consulting, 84% of consumers would want to use mobile, computers and in-store technology to make a purchase and get service. Case in point: Aruba Networks took a poll of 400 Big Show attendees and found that 57% would rather use a device to receive service while in the store, rather than speak to an associate.

Beacons, talked about for some time now, will play an integral role in the revitalization of the brick and mortar shopping experience. VenueNext, an 18-month old well-funded startup, provides tools for large venues (Levi Stadium, Yankee Stadium among others) to enhance the guest experience. Venues license its technology and create a mobile app to improve experiences including ticketing and access, finding your way around the venue, ordering food and merchandise, and loyalty.

CEO John Paul explained that its platform ties together isolated systems including a venue’s point-of-sale system, which will make it a natural fit for retailers as the company expands its target market beyond stadiums. The platform empowers venues to make real time data-driven decisions while connecting users to everything the venue has to offer. For example, a venue can alert users to items on sale, direct them to the shortest restroom line, help them find their car and pre-order merchandise and track its delivery right to them.

“The platform lets venues make decisions throughout the day to improve the guest experience,” said Paul.

Innovations like this will help retailers redefine the role and relevance of brick and mortar.

“Stores aren’t dead,” said Myron “Mike” Ullman, Executive Chairman of JC Penney during a ‘fireside chat’ at the event. “What’s dead are people who don’t understand the purpose of stores.”

Read about Demandware Store and charter program customers vineyard vines and Tumbuk2.