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Recapping NRF 2024: The Big Show

As usual, the weather in New York City kept the National Retail Federation (NRF) 2024 Big Show attendees guessing again this year – with bitter cold temperatures and a mild snowstorm throwing both the daily commuters and out-of-towners into a little bit of controlled chaos. Despite the weather, NRF managed to pull off a terrific event where attendees were amazed with a broad array of leading retail technologies, innovations, and presentations. 

With so many concurrent sessions and an array of meetings to attend, it’s hard to capture all the key insights from the show, but our team collaborated on our top 5 highlights from the show.

Recapping NRF 2024: Top 5 Takeaways 

1. Everyone has something to say about AI and Analytics, but it’s really about the Data

As everyone may have expected, AI, Data, and Analytics were the hot topic on the agenda for many of the sessions. The thing that felt different about AI at this year’s show, however, was an acknowledgement that we’ve moved beyond talking about it conceptually and have really moved into discussing specific use cases. In the past, AI was talked as this overarching item, but the shift into discussing it as a tool is allowing for better education of how AI can help a retailer and where it can be specifically plugged in to improve efficiencies, lower costs, or increase top line revenue. We got to hear from a number of retailers who spoke about use cases of AI – including what they have been doing for years (forecasting, chat bots) and the common stumbling blocks facing them. Almost all of the executives talked about the challenges of building a GenAI model that business users can trust – and that trust starts with having the right data governance and certifications processes, as well as strong data foundations, in place. 

In several sessions, retailers talked about one benefit of AI as being accessible to people who would otherwise not go to a Business Intelligence platform to find a solution to a problem. Once brands have AI-based tools that business users can trust and leverage to make decisions, some retailers have reported slow adoption. There was a common theme about the change management and adoption issues related to AI. Many companies offered advice on how to address this – including starting with information that is very familiar to the users, setting up a team of change agents proactively working with business users to walk them through using the tool, and building executive support. Still, everything starts with trust. Checking and re-checking the data being put into the model and reviewing for hallucinations is still critical at this stage of adoption and evolution. 

2. The Unified Commerce Evolution

While omnichannel was king buzzword at NRF for many years, we’ve seen a subtle shift to now focusing on “Unified Commerce.” While there are some differences between the two, the drivers being shared are very much the same – being able to provide a consistent experience to the customer, regardless of where and when they are shopping. The reason omnichannel stuck around as long as it did is because while simple on the surface, it’s tricky to execute behind the scenes, and unified commerce takes that a step further with unifying customer data across channels as well. The foundational shift to omnichannel created technology challenges, but also had a big impact on retail operations. This all will still exist to late-moving retailers who have yet to invest in either omnichannel or unified commerce; however, for retailers who have implemented some use cases for omnichannel, such as buy online, pick up in store – there is still some foundational technology required to execute on a unified commerce strategy. Ensuring they are building a holistic view of their customers and that there is both external visibility to this for their shoppers – as well as internally to their associates – is key to providing this consistent experience. If the era of omnichannel was any indication, we’ll expect to be hearing about unified commerce for years to come at future NRF conferences.

3. An Increased Employee-Centric Focus 

It’s widely known that happy employees will lead to a better customer experience. And often we hear about how these major retail technology trends (AI, unified commerce, automation) impact the customer experience. But this year felt a little more employee-centric than years past. There were presentations on how to improve overall employee autonomy, empowerment, and morale through associate productivity and scheduling apps. Retailers are also seeing how the typical “customer centric” focus can be flipped on its head to be an employee focus as well. A retail executive shared how he views unified commerce, which is that puts the employee at the center of everything so they can consistently “create meaningful experiences” for their customers.  The emergence of better technology that can empower store associates will continue to allow retail brands to find differentiators to create value in their store experiences that their competitors lack.  

4. Automation isn’t cheap, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t cost-effective 

Another ubiquitous part of the NRF experience this year was a focus on automation. Nearly everywhere you looked there was another robot moving around the Expo floor.  With the increasing costs for human capital, we expect automation to play a critical role for retailers in the future – offering both lower total cost options and improved efficiencies in manufacturing, warehouse operations, eCommerce, and in-store operations.

5. Enterprise Technology providers (like SAP) still command our attention

Once again, the largest enterprise technology vendors were on full display throughout the Expo. Microsoft and SAP had expansive floor space to feature their retail technologies. For example, SAP had a customer theater highlighting key retail customer stories and successes. Even with the focus on GenAI, automation, and innovative store technologies, it’s clear that a strong interest in core enterprise technology remains. While the others might be more impressive to see in person, without the right foundational tech in place, retailers will struggle to execute on their vision.

Connect with our Retail Team 

If you have thoughts on your top takeaways, let us know. We’d love to discuss what we learned and hear about what we may have missed. As always, as members of the National Retail Federation we were proud to send representatives from Clarkston Consulting to the Big Show again this year. If you are interested in speaking with our retail experts about what we learned in more detail, please don’t hesitate to contact us.  

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Contributions from Michelle Tartalio and Dave Foos