The annual National Retail Federation show in New York never fails to disappoint (and, thankfully, we were back in full swing with an in-person show). While I could fill this page with 40,000+ words about #NRF2023 (a word for every person in attendance) I figured you wouldn’t want to read all that.
So, from our vantage point, here are some of the major trends to track from NRF.
AI, AI, AI
I was very tempted to have AI write a paragraph about the growth of AI in the retail sector. That felt maybe a tad too meta. But seriously, AI was everywhere at NRF. In the names of companies…THIS.ai, THAT.ai, AI.ai…it was A lot of AI.
That tracks because machine learning can help retailers make critical decisions in any type of economy. From inventory management to tracking where to stock certain items in an in-store experience to scheduling employee shifts. AI doesn’t need to take a break. It’s efficient at combing through copious amounts of data to help humans make better, more informed decisions.
From a branding perspective, one point of feedback for companies embracing their inner-AI: Use it when it furthers your story or message, but don’t make AI a crutch. In five years, if you’re offering retail technology that isn’t using AI, you’re going to be severely behind. AI is going to be a given to help retailers better plan and prepare. Focus, instead, on what makes your AI different and unique. It’s not enough to have AI, it’s how your customers are better off because you use it in your solution.
And for our “this is just cool so I will post it” segment. Deepbrain AI’s avatar wished me a great NRF. From a distance, she looks like my wife.
Along the lines of AI, another trend woven through NRF was automation. Automating some of the tasks across the supply chain can help retailers better prepare for any snags that come along.
Some of the ways automation is working within the retail sector include warehouse automation tools, automating the cash handling process (what Revolution Retail Systems does) and autonomous negotiations in the supply chain (Pactum AI helps major retailers like Walmart to just that).
There’s automation and then there’s augmented workforces. Companies like ProGlove are creating ergonomic solutions that digitize workers to enhance their efforts in warehouses and fulfillment. This is crucial in a hyper-fast-paced, gotta-have-it-now environment. (Side note, ProGlove won a Guinness World Record for the fastest time to scan and pack 50 items at NRF, which is awesome).
Customer experience—whenever, wherever they are
You remember that Shakira song “Whenever, Wherever”? I do.
The customer journey—what was “omnichannel”—happens everywhere. From innovative kiosks like the kinds of Acrelec develops for retailers to brands like Talkdesk that provide a unique outsourced customer service experience (and, also, great swag in the form of a lavender sleep mask), the customer exists in a lot of places. All at once.
It was interesting to see some of the technology that enables customer tracking in retail locations. People mapping—identifying where customers are in a store and using heat maps and aggregate data to determine where to place certain displays and where people spend the most time in a location—had a presence in several booths. One example of this comes from Xovis, a hardware provider that captures a picture of customers using 3D sensors. Through software integration, brands can track this in real-time, essentially giving the kind of data you would see in a web analytics platform. It is, in a sense, bringing some of the data benefits of e-commerce to the physical realm. Whenever and wherever the customer is retailers can have an increasing amount of understanding about their actions. And it’s all GDPR-compliant, according to the Xovis spokesperson I spoke with.
Tech solutions that combat labor shortages
The labor shortage persists here in the U.S. and retail brands deal with it. Some of the technology at NRF, while not overtly replacing workers, can surely help brands curb labor shortage concerns.
One company I spoke with, Shiftsmart, is taking a novel approach to the changing nature of the workforce. They help retailers across all 50 states connect with shift workers in their network and provide workers in hourly increments as needed. From four-hour shifts at grocery stores and gas stations to shifts as a retail auditor or survey caller, the idea is that brands get the workers they need when they need it. It’s a creative way to combat labor challenges as brands get workers for shift gigs.
There were plenty more trends there, but I see my wordcount is already nearing 800 words, so I’ll stop. Until the next show!