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29 years and…holding. A view of NRF’s 2024 Big Show from the bleachers

I can still recall my first NRF Big Show in January 1993. Not only was it my first experience with the NRF show, but it was also my first experience at any trade show - as attendee or exhibitor. I was young, I was eager and boy, was I ridiculously naïve. I simply had no idea what an absolute grind it would be to bring “the latest and greatest” technology solutions to life in one of the many labyrinthine ballrooms within the New York Hilton hotel. Before NRF moved the show to the Jacob Javits center, before the internet, before cell phones, and before WiFi.

We had to ship UNIX-based servers from our offices in San Diego (through all the storms and cold weather January in the Northeast has to offer), to the Hilton, hoping against hope that they would survive the journey and allow us to demo our wares. And of course, the journey that year took quite a toll on our gear. Long, late-into-the-night hours of extremely stressful tweaking and tinkering followed, until we somehow managed to bring our demos to life, mere minutes before the throngs of NRF ‘93 attendees arrived.

How far we have come in the intervening three decades. The comparatively modern Expo Hall at the Javits is full of countless WiFi networks, all of which are competing for bandwidth and the attention of attendees. Our demos live in the Cloud now, of course, far more impervious to the whims of winter storms than the flights in and out of the New York airports. Preparing for and executing an NRF exhibit today is far easier and delivers far better attendee experiences than those early days so long ago.

But alas, circumstances conspired to keep me away from the hallowed halls of the NRF Big Show the past couple years. As a result, after having been to NRF a whopping 29 consecutive years, I have been stuck - much like a commercial airliner in winter storm Gerri - in a bit of a holding pattern. For three decades, I was like the mail carrier: neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night could keep me from my appointed rounds in the NRF Expo Hall. And for years, as the event came to an end, I penned recap posts detailing the hot topics of the show. But until I eclipse the 30-show milestone, I guess I’ll have to settle for crafting these recap posts from the bleacher seats.

But do not feel shortchanged; modern technologies serve me well as my binoculars. They allow me to zoom in on star speakers and panel pros as they share their insights. Social media posts have become my play-by-play announcers describing the key talking points and sharing the significant slides. Livestreams and instant replays from the expo hall have turned my LinkedIn feed into a running commentary on the latest happenings in and around the show.

All of which I will share with you now, in an attempt to provide a meaningful recap of just a few of the most interesting news and notes emanating from NRF last week:

1. Unified Commerce is no longer a buzzword

Ok, sure, Unified Commerce is obviously still a buzzword. But by all accounts, the phrase was a big topic of discussion during the conference sessions, and it was certainly everywhere in the exhibit hall. That’s because retailers understand that they can no longer just give lip service to Unified Commerce. They know they need to get there, and fast.

A study we co-produced with Bain & Company last year provided empirical insights into how much weight Unified Commerce carries with the 300+ retailers we surveyed. Here are just a few highlights of their confidence in the impacts of Unified Commerce:

  • 96% listed Unified Commerce as one of their top priorities
  • 73% expect Unified Commerce to have a large or significant impact on profitability
  • 71% expect Unified Commerce to have a large or significant impact on conversion rates

Without question, Unified Commerce has moved beyond mere buzzword status. And I, for one, will be excited to watch how the industry adopts and adapts to Unified Commerce in the coming months. It promises to be a wild ride.

2. Generative AI generated lots of NRF buzz, too, but with a twist

The inevitable rise of AI within the industry’s collective consciousness continued unabated during NRF. By my count, 17 of the conference sessions expressly included “AI” in their session titles, and who knows how many more included it in the content without naming it in the title. Analysts had oh, so many opinions about it (but to be fair, pretty much everyone had an opinion about it). Retailers had a few early success stories and far more questions about it. And vendors, of course had demos of it. From my vantage point, it seemed like the only thing missing from the Expo Hall was Ron Popeil shouting, “Set and forget it!” from a booth-side exhibit.

One note amongst all this buzz that seemed of particular interest to me: Dave Weinand, Co-Founder and Chief Customer Officer at industry insights provider Incisiv, tells me he heard numerous retailers discussing Gen AI as a tool for augmenting (not replacing) associates as the highest priority use case. The people Dave spoke with during NRF indicated that they believe Conversational AI has real potential to help associates deliver better experiences by providing them things like better training and easy access to detailed product information.

I have heard excitement about those exact same use cases from several Aptos clients as well, and some are already investing. Only time will tell, of course, but maybe - perhaps finally - we are beginning to coalesce around an actual value proposition for this relentlessly headline-stealing technology.

3. Fundamental retail: looking beyond the buzz

While Unified Commerce and AI certainly competed for the spotlights, many people I spoke to told me how much actual interest there was in the basics of retail. People are looking to ensure the fundamentals – things like inventory visibility, sales channel integration and fulfillment and logistics operations – are on solid ground.

It seems that most retailers now understand that they can’t add modern applications to a technology house of cards, and they recognize that getting the fundamentals right is a critical first step to delivering the unified experiences shoppers expect.

All of which is refreshing news, indeed. Too often it seems we spend time chasing “shiny objects” (especially at NRF) while ignoring the real, meaningful benefits that come from unified enterprises built on solid technological and application foundations. Here’s hoping this is a trend that sticks.

4. RetailROI continues to make meaningful impacts

One look at the photos from RetailROI’s annual Super Saturday fundraiser tells me all I need to know about Greg Buzek and his intrepid band of impact makers. Hundreds of retailers, vendors and nonprofits all gathered once again for a day of retail talk, tech talk and most importantly, talk of the real difference RetailROI continues to make in the lives of (literally) hundreds of thousands of children around the world.

I continue to be amazed by the generosity of the companies and individuals who support RetailROI, as well as their ability to consistently drive as much as 95% of all donations directly to people in need. And I am proud of Aptos’ continued support of this amazing group of people.

There are certainly many more things I could have highlighted from NRF ‘24, but these four jumped out at me as meaningful issues that have real impact on the daily lives and investments of retailers looking for ways to leverage technology to help achieve their objectives.

I hope they help you, and I hope to see you at NRF in person one year again soon.