If social media was the hot topic at last year’s meeting of retail minds in New York, then this year the buzz was all about mobile.

Last week I travelled out to the National Retail Federation convention in New York. The biggest retail technology exhibition you can imagine is complemented by a comprehensive programme of conference sessions. And everyone from US retail CEOs, to management consultants to the techies were talking about the importance of mobile.

Retail Week ran a store tour for business analytics and intelligence provider SAS; showing retailers from the UK, Italy and Turkey around a variety of store formats in Manhattan.

One of the highlights was the demonstration of the mobile point of sale system being used by The Disney Store in Times Square. Running on a modified iPod Touch, the Oracle-based POS system allows customers to complete a transaction on their credit card anywhere in the store, or have everything in their basket scanned while they queue to speed up payment at the till.

Meanwhile, speaking at NRF, US private sale retailer Rue La La’s CEO Ben Fischman said that sales coming though its mobile channel have jumped from 2% in the final quarter of 2009, to 19% in Q4 2010.

And to encourage consumers to access value-adding online content and services on their phones, many US retailers are also seriously thinking about whether they should offer free WiFi in stores. Macy’s ecommerce chief Peter Sachse said: “We have to have connectivity in the store.”

With UK network operators beginning to put the squeeze on unlimited mobile data packages, UK retailers could find that this becomes a bigger issue for them too.

Where social media did come up, it too often had a mobile theme.

Deloitte Research global director Ira Kalish explained that growth of social media is not a wholly good thing for retailers: “Social networking leads to commoditisation.”

However, he also believes that technology can help retailers solve this problem, appealing to customers in other ways than by simply entering a cycle of undercutting with their competitors. “The challenge is to use technology to build brands rather than allow them to be destroyed,” he explained.

Mobile is one of the most interesting ways retailers can achieve this.

Find out more

For more on the retail and technology trends from this year’s NRF see Friday’s edition of Retail Week. If you are interested in what the largest retailers in the UK think of mobile and social media see the Retail Week report Multichannel Now.