Once again, the ritual that is the January National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show has come and gone. Over 40,000 people, 6,200-plus brands, and 1,000-plus exhibitors from 100-plus countries participated in the 2024 show. My retail innovation leadership activities stretched out over five days, logging over 75,000 steps—or, to be more exact, 32.62 walking miles.
The greatest pleasure at this event is reconnecting with retail and technology leaders from around the world in one single location. This year was a reminder that we are well past the pandemic. Refreshingly, the hearty handshakes and hugs were back with both friends and business colleagues.
Personally, NRF 2024 was even more special this year as I attended as president of Sensormatic. My agenda was super packed with retailers, press, and analyst meetings. Being a true retail technology industry geek, I did squeeze in my traditional trend spotting walk.
This article summarizes some of my favorite events and themes of NRF 2024. It highlights both the hits that made NRF 2024 memorable and the one miss that could have improved it.
The Best Way to Start Each NRF: Retail ROI Super Saturday
A favorite activity every year is attending the Retail Orphan Initiative (Retail ROI) on the Saturday just prior to that start of the NRF Big Show. The purpose of Retail ROI is to raise awareness and provide real solutions for the more than 400 million vulnerable children worldwide.
If you were lucky enough to attend the 2024 edition then you truly understand why it has become a fulfilling ‘Tech and Tears’ memory building event. Retail Innovation topics this year included:
- “The State of the Store”—with senior executives from Dollar Tree, Carter’s, and PepsiCo.
- “Practical AI”—with senior executives from Microsoft, Elior, and MARS.
- “Revolutionizing Customer Engagement: Harnessing the Power of AI and Enhanced Experiences”—with the Avanade and the former CEO of Vitamin Shoppe.
- “Building Better Teams”—with a former VP of global operations from Nike and the chief digital office of Solo Brands.
- “Fearless Technology Predictions for 2024 and Beyond”—with Customer Service Action Ltd, Kule, and the IHL Group.
A favorite for me this year was the PepsiCo discussion around the retail industry replacing the EAN-UPC Barcode with 2D QR codes by 2027.
The keynote speaker was Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC who passionately spoke about the challenges in his life including finding out in his 30s that he was adopted and how he recovered from addiction by bringing special people into his life.
Tears really flowed when Nicole Taylor took the stage and shared her life changing story in becoming ‘A Champion for Every Kid’ in the foster care system of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Retail ROI Super Saturday is a human reminder that we all can pay it forward. This special event confirms Gandhi’s words that “YOU must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Big Show Lesson: Please Stop Saying You Have AI
According to RIS News, “the running joke at this year’s event was that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was required for entry. Nearly every panel either focused on AI-powered innovation, or the discussions trailed into that topic of interest.”
The trends look promising for retail AI. IDC reports that retail sectors rank second among all industries globally in AI technology spending. The IHL Group found that retailers that have already embraced artificial intelligence and machine learning is achieving 2.3 times growth in sales and 2.5 growth in profits for 2023 compared to competitors.
Remember last year when we were all talking about the metaverse? According to Susan Reda, NRF’s vice president of education strategy, “We’ve really flipped the switch from all things metaverse a year ago to all things AI this year. And AI is just hype, hype, hype—but often with good reasons. So, I think that’ll be a huge trend for us as we move into 2024.”
A favorite memory from NRF 2024 was a question from a Forbes reporter during a Sensormatic interview. Paraphrasing, they said “don’t tell me you have AI, tell me specifically what unique problem you are trying to solve with AI.” Artificial intelligence is indeed here, but as with every other technology, stop telling us how it will solve everything, and specifically focus on solving problems that have a quantifiable return on investment.
Let’s stop hyping AI. Instead, as Google put it in their NRF Exhibit, it is time to put generative AI to productive work that solves specific industry problems.
IT’S BACK: An RFID Twist Even in the Autonomous Store
As I discussed in one of my personal videos, in 2023 Amazon started rethinking the concept of autonomous stores and closed quite a few their Amazon Go stores.
While the traditional Amazon Go along with multiple other competitors returned to NRF 2024, what was more interesting this year was the autonomous apparel store focus in the Amazon booth.
The technology powering this version of the autonomous store is RFID. Amazon was not alone in showcasing this Internet of Things (IoT) solution. On all exhibit levels and on retail industry panels, RFID increased its presence. Examples of quotes from NRF presentations include:
- “For retailers concerned about shrink, RFID has become critical.” —Macy’s
- “The inventory accuracy is unparalleled. I can’t imagine executing omnichannel successfully without RFID.” —Levi’s
- “RFID is becoming so ubiquitous that many multi-brand retailers are finding that products come to their stores with RFID built in. Snipes, a footwear retailer online, found that some 70 percent of items on its site were already tagged via RFID.” —Leslie Hand, IDC
As reported by BizTech “Retailers are also layering RFID with computer vision in smart shelves to get more visibility into their store environments. These smart shelves monitor product movements and sense theft as it happens.” More IoT innovation is coming to this space.
The Perfect NRF Book End: The Loss Prevention Research Council Kickoff
Retail shrink was prevalent in many earnings calls in 2023 as a problem for retailers. As the Wall Street Journal reported this month, in 2023 the problem of retail shrink represented 2 percent of retail sales.
What is more disturbing is that according to the latest NRF Security Survey, 88 percent of retailers report that shoplifters are somewhat more or much more aggressive and violent than the previous year.
On Wednesday during NRF week, I had the pleasure of attending the Loss Prevention Research Council Kickoff. Hosted by AT&T at Hudson Yards, it was refreshing to see a full room of retail executives and solution providers collaborating on addressing this retail challenge.
It was also enlightening to hear directly from the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the New York Police Department on the major initiatives they have underway to combat retail crime.
It’s A Big Miss: Retail Media Networks Growth
Missing from this year’s edition of the NRF Big Show was greater discussions and innovations around retail media networks. I did see an interesting presentation from Consultant Andrew Lipsman on the “Golden Age of Retail Media Networks.” Below is one of his charts:
Note the number of eyeballs that can be monetized through advertising in physical stores versus online.
It’s A Wrap on NRF 2024
I had mixed feelings as my five very active retail days in New York ended. Meeting so many retailers and industry friends was exhilarating. Walking the exhibit floor was déjà vu as on some levels I expected more progress with innovation for evolving the retail industry forward.
Similar themes were everywhere, with AI being the number one hyped buzzword everyone had to mention quite a few times to be considered relevant. What ever happened to that ‘new normal’ that many of us forecasted post-pandemic?
Hosting retailers on multiple evenings, attending the RETHINK Retail 2024 Top Experts Gala, stopping by the TalkLP celebration, and joining the NRF Loss Prevention Council are just of few of many positive memories that made the NRF 2024 edition special.
Based on the work that I am doing, fully expect 2024 to be an exceptional growth year. I wish you the same in both your personal and retail life.