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NRF 2024: Tech challenges retailers to work smarter

By Miya Knights, Publisher | Thursday January 25 2024 | UPDATED 29.01.24

Artificial intelligence, retail media and cloud migration top tech developments featured at annual US trade show

The US National Retail Federation (NRF) 2024 Retail’s Big Show confirmed generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) as the hottest technology development among retailers.

The event showcased GenAI use cases that challenge retailers to work smarter alongside cloud migration for efficiencies and retail media network (RMN) revenue generation.

Hal Lawton, president and CEO of US retailer Tractor Supply Company, highlighted how GenAI is helping store staff use its entire knowledge base to improve customer service.

He explained how the chain uses GenAI in its associate tool to enable team members to answer customer queries by accessing relevant information using voice-based headsets.

Customer service spotlight

“In today’s world, where many times you feel like retail is going the opposite of customer service, we want to make sure we’re doubling down on customer service,” Lawton said.

Referring to the perception that the advent of digital has depersonalised retail service, Lawson captured the tone of the Show, which was to find ways of doing more with less.

Many exhibitor offerings based on machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), computer vision and other mature fields of AI now include a generative capability.

A move beyond purely historical analysis saw many aggregate disparate external data sources. However, the NLP-based conversational interrogation of results with multimedia outputs was also crucial.

Doing more with less

Ganesh Subramanian, CEO of fashion and lifestyle forecasting platform Stylumia, said: “Most forecasting aims to minimise waste. Intelligent allocation can eliminate the problem.”

He told that clients, including Marks & Spencer and Tommy Hilfiger, were looking for always-on consumer insight to help them better match supply to demand.

In the Show’s Innovation Zone, Profitmind by Netail dynamically analyses key metrics, such as price optimisation and inventory rationalisation. But a chatbot can interrogate results.

Sivakumar Hariharaiyer, Co-Founder of Netail, explained that it acts as a retail analyst assistant by training a GenAI layer on strategy and data to extract insight and make recommendations.

Matching supply to demand

Euro Wang, Co-Founder and CEO of forecasting startup Guac, declared: “We are disrupting grocery forecasting, specifically daily, fresh demand, to improve food security and waste.”

The advanced ML-based AI engine of Guac uses multiple data sources, including 230 external variables such as weather, to optimise inventory down to individual store level.

The most mature predictive ML use cases are in the supply chain. So, specialists such as SymphonyAI Retail CPG and RELEX were demonstrating the added benefits of GenAI.

Craig Summers, Manhattan Associates UK, Ireland, Middle East, Africa and the Nordics Managing Director, said: “We need to get products to customers as efficiently as possible.”

Unifying channel operations

Summers showed a GenAI chatbot assistant for navigating its Active platform, configuring business processes, generating code, and a new e-commerce partnership with Shopify

Nikki Baird, Strategy Vice President at Aptos Retail, has a similar message. “We’re seeing a lot of convergence and rationalisation for greater efficiency,” she said.

Point of sale (POS) and promotions developments to the Aptos ONE retail management system, coupled with order management system demand, were helping to unify channel operations.

Baird also highlighted the launch of Tap to Pay on iPhone in partnership with payments provider Adyen to accept contactless payments without needing extra terminals or hardware.

Moving online to offline

Even tech giant Amazon Web Services (AWS) attended the event to show the latest, compact iteration of its Just Walk Out (JWO) checkout-free technology for soft lines using RFID.

Jon Jenkins, Amazon JWO Vice President, said: “We’ve removed barriers to entry, including cameras in the ceiling and sensors on shelves, to decouple the JWO cost from store size.”

Justin Honaman, AWS Worldwide Retail & Consumer Goods Go-To-Market Head, added: “Our offerings are split 50/50 between physical and digital, and not cloud-only services.”

These included Amazon One biometric payments, computer vision-based traffic monitoring and Amazon Dash shopping cart advances, as well as AI forecasting and personalisation services.

Automating for efficiency

The desire to work smarter is also spurring data-driven innovation from the warehouse. Smart wearable scanner firm ProGlove is working with a UK grocer to equip store pickers.

Stefan Lampa, ProGlove CEO, added: “Pick-to-voice doesn’t need scanning, but accuracy is essential. We can also analyse activity to track and raise efficiency and ergonomic metrics.”

BionicHIVE introduced SqUID, an automated, autonomous robotic floor-to-ceiling picking system, while Apptronik’s Apollo humanoid robot is targeting material handling use cases.

Apptronik told Apollo currently has four hours of running time and hot-swappable batteries and that the company is looking for retail proof of concepts.

Monetising online media

The Show’s overarching trend of doing more with less saw GenAI enabling tech to deliver value greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, RMNs build on mature digital assets.

In the Innovation Zone, Turbyne presented its retail media execution platform, which aims to standardise RMN campaign planning, selling and execution across channels.

Another emerging RMN exhibitor, Rockbot, said retailers could double the success of their online retail media by also deploying campaigns in their brick-and-mortar locations.

Smarter, faster, cheaper

It was also evident that upcoming European Union (EU) Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Digital ID Passport, and e-invoicing legislation were also driving innovation.

Natasha Franck, an NRF exhibitor and the Founder and CEO of EON, is improving product traceability with unique digital IDs. She agreed that sustainability underpins both ID and CSR regulation.

In this regard, NRF 2024 demonstrated how tech development can enable retailers to work smarter, faster and cheaper, precisely when they need to deliver more with less.

However, many options discussed or displayed at the Show will also require levels of digitally enabled and data-driven maturity across customers, sales and supply chains.

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