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The View from NRF's Big Show 2020

Artificial intelligence was a big theme at this year's event, but there were so many other innovations that retailers likely left feeling utterly overwhelmed and confused.
By Mark Roberti
Jan 19, 2020

Each year, I attend the National Retail Federation (NRF)'s Big Show. This year, the event was larger and busier than in the past few years, and artificial intelligence (AI) was a big theme. It seemed that every booth was offering some kind of AI solution, in fact. Most of it was not really AI, but it's the buzzword so everyone was claiming they offered it. Smart retail, intelligent retail and other forms of the idea were also prevalent.

It seemed to me that there were more innovations on display. It was if every technology company on Earth decided that retail is the new frontier and developed some solution to address retail issue. There were a lot of video-based systems for confirming out-of-stocks, aimed at telling grocery stores that a shelf space is empty. Zebra Technologies, for example, introduced a robot that takes video of shelves to determine when items are out of stock, while Pensa Systems offered a flying drone that records video footage of shelves and reports any goods that require restocking.

There were cameras that measured bodies, display units that could be used to sell product without the need for human intervention, systems for virtually trying on apparel and accessories, exit gates that let shoppers walk about with items paid for on their smartphone, virtual reality experiences, a system for marketing to people traveling in ride-share cars, and even electronic article surveillance (EAS) tags that customers could remove after purchasing an item without going to a checkout counter.

I had two recurring thoughts as I walked the floor. One was that innovation has come to the retail industry (which had historically not invested a lot in in IT systems and technology). The second was that retailers must be overwhelmed with all the technology options being thrown at them. Where do they start to invest?

I think many retailers will invest in customer experience technologies, thinking that will bring people into the store or wow them once they arrive. That would be a mistake. Some may also be seduced by the promises being made by AI vendors. "Just use our software and it will tell you how to make better decisions or make good decision for you!" That, too, would be a mistake.

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