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    NRF 2024: AI, Snow, Delayed Flights and New Tech Wonders

    Posted by: Guy Courtin | January 23, 2024

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    I would rather not think about how many times I have trudged to New York City in January to attend Retail’s Big Show by NRF. But suffice it to say, I have been there to hear about    e-commerce, the cloud, robotics, the Metaverse, Covid, and I was even there for the “Miracle on the Hudson.” This was not my first rodeo. Like the past events, there was some new and some not so new. Here are my observations: 

    AI is Everywhere… No Shock There  

    Unless you have been living on a deserted island, AI has been force fed to you in some way, shape or form. Some would have you believe that it will solve all world issues. However, I heard some interesting perspectives in the halls of the Javits Center this year.  

    Most notably, AI is the first big technology that no retailer is outright dismissing. We all take e-commerce or the cloud for granted, but if we get into our DeLorean with the flux capacitor and head back to the late 1990s, even as late as the early 2000s, we will hear plenty of skepticism from retailers about e-commerce. Time jump to the 2010s and the similar doubts would echo through the Javits Center regarding the adoption of cloud technology. However, when it comes to AI, while there are varying degrees of enthusiasm, there is a consensus that AI is here to stay. In a conversation I had with some peers at AWS, they emphasized that AI has achieved global acceptance.  

    What we need to keep in mind is the degree to which retail will embrace and adopt AI will range in scope. AI won’t be a sweeping panacea; rather, it will solve specific use cases. The real impact of AI lies in its integration into various solutions tailored to address specific problems. Think of it as a secret spice in a recipe for success, sprinkled in just enough to enhance your tools and processes. From inventory management to planograms, and from customer profiling to digital marketing, AI will be part of the equation. Just take a look at your LinkedIn posts or Google search results. As retailers, we all need to prepare for the ubiquity of AI and consider how they will complement our existing digital tools and decision-making. 

    More New Bells and Whistles for Stores 

    From holograms and cutting-edge mobile POS systems to smart carts (real shopping carts) and grab and go technologies, it’s clear that traditional ‘stores’ are far from obsolete. In fact, there was a palpable buzz around the store’s transformation around the introduction of exciting new features. 

    One booth in particular demonstrated some impressive hologram technologies that left attendees in awe. Picture this: a large frame with a virtual person, engaging with you and ready to answer your questions, powered by and AI-enabled assistant straight out of the future.  

    Modern POS systems were on full display, with companies like Flooid, CGI, Jumpmind and Predict Spring, among others, showcasing their latest offerings. Many of these new systems included a heavy infusion of clientelling features, enhancing the shopping experience.  

    Of course, Amazon made a splash with their self-checkout store in the Javits Center lobby. Clearly, this concept was a big hit as their shelves were consistently depleted every afternoon.  

    Finally, the continued fusion of the digital realm with the physical world was evident. A great example was Crate and Barrel and their virtual flagship store. While Crate and Barrel certainly wants to drive foot traffic to the store, they also recognize the importance of catering to the digital-savvy customer, or simply those who cannot make it to New York. Their virtual tour is not just a walkthrough; it’s an immersive digital experience that transitions seamlessly from consultation to transaction. Across the board, NRF 2024 reaffirmed that the physical store continues to evolve and remains a key piece of the retail ecosystem.  

    Robots Come Back to Reality 

    In 2020, pre-pandemic, robots and automation were red hot. It was a culmination of years of progress, with drones and various robots already making their mark on the show floor. 2020 seemed like the peak, with multiple robot vendors like 6River Systems, Locus Robotics and RightHand Robotics showcasing their mechanical wonders, and the innovation center teeming with robotic startups. How times have changed.  

    In this latest installment of NRF, there were some robotic vendors, but their presence was notably more subdied. Autostore and ForwardX were the main players in town, and the innovation center was a whisper of what it was compared to previous years. Other robotics vendors were tucked away in larger booth’s, like Invia in Dell’s.  

    We should not view this as an indictment on the value of robots for retail. It is just the natural ebb and flow of technological hype. Remember the buzz around the Metaverse in 2023? Retailers should not be dissuaded at looking to robotics to solve specific fulfillment use cases from picking, storage, put away to delivery. 

    The Human Connection 

    It’s easy to forget that the pandemic was a few short years ago. Seeing such bustling crowds at the Javits Center, interacting and mingling once again, was truly refreshing. This is also a good sign for an industry that is inherently about the personal relationship. Regardless of which sector fills our paychecks, we are all still part of the retail industry. It’s an industry that remains deeply rooted in human interaction, where we still cherish the experience of in-person shopping. As much as e-commerce is commanding a greater portion of our wallet share, it’s worth noting that it is still hovering below 20%. It was good to see that the retailers and the solution providers still believe in the human element of shopping… and in this case, for solutions. 


    2024 Has Begun 

    For the past several years (dare I say decades?), attending NRF felt like the true start of my year. It usually is my first business trip of the year, and my first trade show for the year. No exception this year. Overall, I felt a very positive vibe at the conference. There was a healthy energy towards innovation, and nothing stuck out as irrational. I was encouraged by the conversations and what were on display. From what I saw and heard in New York, 2024 is off to a good start.  

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