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By: Gabriella Bock, Editorial Director at RETHINK Retail

Key Takeaways from NRF 2024: AI Dominance, RFID Resurgence, and the Softer Side of Retail

The National Retail Federation’s Big Show 2024 marked yet another year of remarkable conversations, technological advancements and industry milestones. The annual event once again took center stage on the global retail calendar, setting the tone for what the industry can expect in the year ahead.

Under the banner of “Make it Matter,” this year’s Big Show lived up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the most influential and highly anticipated gatherings in the world of retail, and left attendees with no doubt of what will and won’t matter in the year to come. 

Here are the key takeaways from NRF 2024 that we believe will matter most in 2024. 

The Spotlight on A.I.  

If there is one thing that became abundantly clear during this year’s Big Show, it’s that AI has officially emerged as the belle of the ball. It’s prominence was undeniable and 

From keynotes to tech demos to offsite summits, Artificial Intelligence took up some form of residence in nearly every conversation at the show. 

However, what set this year apart from previous discussions about AI and machine learning was the palpable transition from abstract speculation about what “might be” to tangible, practical discussions about what already exists – and more.

Among its various applications, Generative AI, Vision AI, and Machine Learning have emerged as game-changers, revolutionizing the way retailers plan, operate, optimize and engage with customers.

We shouldn’t be afraid of tools. No one should have an AI project. They should have, I like to call it a sell more vitamins project, or better engagement project, or enhanced inventory accuracy project.

Andy Laudato, COO of The Vitamin Shoppe

During a session with Tractor Supply Company Vice President of Customer Facing Applications Development Glenn Allison shared real world applications how the company is leveraging Generative AI to improve the knowledge of its in-store employees to enhance both the customer and employee experience. 

“We’re taking care of our store team members, so they can better take care of the customers and the criticality of being able to give them a legendary experience,” he said. “And that is genuine AI, not just buzz—genuine AI, purpose-built to take care of our store team members and customers.”

Allison’s example echoed other discussions held during the show, including an interview RETHINK Retail had with Jay Shields, SVP of sales and customer success at Pomeroy. 

Recognizing AI’s ability to empower retail through tailor-made information and recommendations for each customer, Shields told RETHINK Retail that the essence of AI should not lie in complexity but rather in simplifying the lives of retail teams and customers.

Jay Shields in conversation with Gabriella Bock at the RETHINK Retail Media Booth

For example, instead of relying on human associates, AI can identify customers and suggest suitable products or upsell options, making the shopping experience more efficient and customer-friendly. The key to implementing AI in retail successfully, Shield says,  is to emphasize its non-threatening, helpful, and life-easing aspects, making both customers and retail executives more comfortable with its adoption.

“What we’re going to find this year is AI being leveraged to make things easier for stores to operate — particularly in recognizing and segmenting customers for personalized greetings and recommendations,”  Shields revealed. 

Shields’ viewpoint aligns with the notion that AI should not overcomplicate matters but rather serve as a valuable and supportive presence in people’s lives. Ultimately, the overarching goal remains consistent – to elevate the shopping experience and make it more seamless and enjoyable for consumers.

“If you don’t have it on your 2024 or 2025 roadmap, you need to get the right people into your ecosystem,” she said. 

RFID (Re) Enters the Chat 

While it may have lost some of its buzz in recent years, Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) is experiencing a resurgence in the retail industry, proving that sometimes, old technologies can find new life and relevance. 

In the early 2000s, RFID technology emerged as a revolutionary force in the retail industry. Retailers eagerly adopted RFID for its promise in enhancing inventory management, streamlining supply chains, and even engaging consumers in novel ways. The real-time tracking capabilities and accuracy it brought to inventory management were truly transformative.

Yet, like all technological advancements, RFID faced its share of challenges. The substantial initial costs associated with RFID implementation and the necessity for infrastructure upgrades served as deterrents for some retailers. Additionally, the initial focus on inventory management limited the exploration of RFID’s potential in other areas of the industry.  

Fast forward to today, and RFID is once again hitting the conference halls—this time with a fresh narrative. This year’s retail exposition and discussions have pivoted toward two key areas: digitizing loss prevention and elevating the checkout experience.

Traditionally, loss prevention relied on security personnel and surveillance cameras to deter theft. While these methods are effective to some extent, they often fall short in providing comprehensive insights and data to combat shoplifting tactics that occur off-camera or at the checkout stand.

Matt Redwood speaks on new uses for RFID at NRF 2024

RFID sensors can track the movement of products throughout the store with pinpoint accuracy and provide real-time tracking that enables retailers to identify suspicious behavior and potential theft incidents more efficiently.

“It’s really hard to figure out what’s missing in a stack of black jeans and so RFID gives us the insight to say we know what’s been pulled from our floor” says Kirsten L’Orange, vice president of global direct-to-consumer omnichannel productivity at Levi Strauss. 

In addition to improving loss prevention efforts, retailers are recognizing RFID’s potential to transform the checkout experience.

“If you do not have RFID and serialized data on your products, you cannot compete.”

Bill Hardgrave, President of the University of Memphis.

Matt Redwood, VP of Retail Technology Solutions at Diebold Nixdorf, told RETHINK Retail about how the company is integrating RFID into their kiosks to improve the customer checkout process. 

According to Redwood, the technology allows customers to breeze through the checkout lanes with RFID-enabled items, reducing wait times and enhancing overall satisfaction. This is especially important when it comes to reducing friction for categories like apparel and electronics. 

 “RFID is not new, and it’s been around for a very, very long time, but a lot of fashion retailers are now deploying RFID for stock management,” said Redwood. “And that means that we can utilize the technology at checkout to give a much faster, much more seamless, much less frictionless checkout experience in the fashion world.”

An Avoided Recession But Uncertainty Still Lingers

The past few years have brought unprecedented challenges to the US economy. From global health crises to rising geopolitical tensions and the biggest interest-rate surge in 40 years, whispers of an impending recession permeated the halls of last year’s Big Show. 

Fortunately, as we turn the page to 2024, there is a somewhat prevailing sense of relief and albeit, cautious, optimism. The consensus among analysts this year is that the nation has skillfully averted a recession, paving the way for a resurgence in consumer spending and a renewed sense of economic confidence in the near term. 

Still, there are a few consequential macro factors that will continue to define the economic landscape of 2024  — namely, two ongoing wars, heightened concerns surrounding China’s economic slowdown and its stance on Taiwan’s independence, and the 2024 Presidential Election — and retailers should be forewarned that the economy is still protected to see slow growth. 

“I think the economy is going to grow relatively slowly this year, slower than it’s been, but I don’t think a recession is in the cards,” said CNBC senior economics reporter Steve Liesman during Monday’s Economic Outlook 2024 Keynote. 

And despite remaining relatively resilient in 2023, consumer spending is also predicted to slow in 2024, with analysts predicting that trends such as re-commerce and microdose shopping will continue to gain traction over the next 12 months. 

Riding the Viral Wave 

Viral moments have always been a part of the digital age but in 2023 their impact reached unprecedented heights. The hard launch of the TikTok Shop and viral crazes from the Stanley Cup to the macabre Grimace Shake Challenge highlighted the power social influence can play on consumer spending. 

During a conversation with Kieran Powell, EVP of Channel V Media, Jessica Binns, a storied industry journalist and recently named RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert, shared her take on why brands should seek opportunities to “ride the wave of a viral trend.”

Citing McDonald’s Grimace Shake Challenge, Binns told RETHINK Retail that brands should lean into the conversations their customers are having online and use the information to redefine their marketing strategies. 

Last year, McDonald’s rolled out a special Grimace Birthday Meal featuring a limited-edition purple shake inspired by the iconic fast-food character. But what was intended to be a wholesome campaign soon devolved into a maelstrom of videos depicting content creators drinking the shake before appearing lifeless in a purple-splattered crime scene. 

But instead of pulling the campaign, McDonald’s doubled down, and sales of the Grimace Shake soared. 

During the NRF 2024 Session “Digital Strategies to Decode Gen Z”, panelist  and McDonald’s VP of U.S. Customer Engagement Caleb Pearson revealed how the brand responded to the viral craze. 

“The team said ‘This is about people expressing themselves, and you need to lean into this,’” Pearson revealed. “So we posted an image of Grimace pretending that he didn’t see the Grimace shake trend on TikTok.”

By embracing what was happening organically among their fan-base, McDonald’s took charge of the narrative, a step Binns says other brands should replicate.

“You can’t just ignore the behavior that your consumers are already putting out there,’ Binns revealed. “Retailers have to have the processes in place internally to capitalize on that conversation and then run with it and then create your own viral moments.”  

By recognizing and engaging in viral moments, companies have a golden opportunity to enhance their brand’s visibility and effectively engage with their audience on a significantly more personalized level. 

Touching the “Softer Side” of Retail

In a year earmarked by technological progress, it is essential to remember that technology is a tool and not a substitute for human touch. While AI systems excel at efficiency and data analysis, they fall short when it comes to the nuanced empathy and emotional intelligence that define human interactions. 

This emphasis on human touch was reinforced by Powell during his interview with Binns, who cautioned retailers not to underestimate its importance.

“It’s paramount that retailers not only implement new technology, but also give focus to the softer side of retail as well,” said Powell. “So they can teach the next generation how to be retailers.” 

According to Powell, the softer side refers to elements like one-on-one customer service, the in-store atmosphere and brand storytelling that all significantly contribute to an enriched shopping experience. 

“Store associates need to be trained not just how to use technology but also how to romance the customer so they have a great experience,” continued Powell. “Technology can not make up for a bad customer experience.” 

It’s a sentiment that Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell echoed during a keynote interview with  CNBC Retail and Consumer Reporter and RETHINK Retail 2024 Top Retail Expert Melissa Repko

Although AI has been a “big area of focus” for the beauty retailer, Kimbell stressed the importance of leveraging technology to bring the human side of retail to the forefront of the customer experience. 

“When we think of beauty innovation, it has to start with ‘how can we compliment, elevate, and highlight human experiences that happen in the Ulta Beauty environment?’”

In Conclusion

The National Retail Federation’s Big Show 2024 lived up to its reputation as an extraordinary gathering, leaving an indelible mark on the retail industry. As we reflect on the key takeaways from this event, it’s evident that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken center stage, transitioning from abstract discussions to practical applications. Generative AI, Vision AI, and Machine Learning are reshaping the retail landscape, enhancing operations and customer engagement.

Retailers have also  realized that RFID is not merely a tool for behind-the-scenes operations but a multifaceted solution that can address the pressing challenges of today’s floor teams. Whether it’s combatting theft, enhancing the shopping journey, or driving operational efficiency, RFID’s resurgence in retail underscores its enduring relevance and versatility. 

Economic uncertainties have loomed, but there’s cautious optimism as the nation steers clear of a recession. However, macro factors like ongoing conflicts and the 2024 Presidential Election will continue to shape the economic landscape. Viral moments and the power of social influence have emerged as critical drivers of consumer spending, emphasizing the need for brands to adapt to the digital age.

Lastly, the emphasis on the “softer side” of retail reminds us that technology should complement, not replace, human touch. Training the next generation of retailers involves fostering empathy, one-on-one customer service, and brand storytelling. As we move forward, it’s clear that the fusion of technology and human experiences will define the future of retail, enriching the shopping journey for consumers across the globe.