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NRF 2024: AI isn’t plumbing, but it’s universal

artificial intelligence
AI is an accepted part of retail, but still rapidly evolving.

There was one dominant topic of conversation at the NRF 2024 “Big Show,” and it wasn’t the cold, snowy weather.

Everyone who attended this year’s NRF conference went in fully aware that artificial intelligence (AI), especially innovative models such as generative AI, would be a major component of every exhibit booth, educational session, and conversation. 

But the unknown quantity was, exactly how would AI fit into the industry landscape for 2024? After spending three busy and informative days at the conference, I have some answers.

AI is accepted and assumed – but it isn’t routine

In my previous column, I wondered aloud whether NRF 2024 would reveal AI to be the new, shiny thing, or plumbing? The answer I found is it is both, and neither.

AI itself is not new. It has been a widely accepted tool in retail technology for 30 years or more, showing up in solutions such as the algorithmic optimization applications that started becoming popular around the turn of the century.

However, leading-edge AI models based on concepts such as machine learning, advanced computer vision and next-generation predictive capabilities are still new and rapidly evolving (even on a month-to-month basis). So it’s premature to call the new generation of AI technology “plumbing.”

At the same time, next-generation AI is showing up in solutions being used in every area of the enterprise. Generative AI is enabling supply chain planners and frontline associates, as well as shoppers, to ask questions in conversational language and get concise, informative answers. 

Advanced computer vision helps retailers track store activity and performance in real time, and machine learning-based predictive analytics can aid retailers anticipate and quickly react to global supply chain shocks that seem to pop up more frequently than ever.

Because of these exciting developments in the capabilities and functionality of AI, it’s not surprising that I also discovered…

Everyone understands the importance of AI

I’ve been covering the retail tech space since the late 1990s. In that time, I have seen a lot of transformative technologies – e-commerce, omnichannel and mobile as a few examples – emerge and evolve. In just about every instance, there has always been some industry pushback.

For example, it’s hard to remember how many retailers and industry experts did not see the value of e-commerce when it began its journey to becoming a mainstream retail technology area and sales channel in the late 1990s. 

Many in the industry felt that a sale made online was simply “cannibalized” from a store, or that “high-touch” products like apparel would never sell on the Internet. Amazon’s early struggles toward profitability and the “dotcom” crash of the early 2000s only reinforced this viewpoint.

We all know what happened, and to be fair most new technologies meet widespread skepticism and resistance. But not this time. Survey after survey has shown that the industry also uniformly sees the value of next-generation AI, and my conversations at the show with both retailers and technology providers confirm that fact. I did not encounter a single doubter, and that’s a first.

AI obtains the value from what’s already there

Finally, during my time at NRF 2024 I uncovered a big truth about next-generation AI – it doesn’t create anything new, but extracts previously unobtainable value from existing assets and data sets. 

The granular data on why and how each individual customer makes purchase decisions exists, but advanced sorting, segmentation and analysis tools enable retailers to capture and leverage it to improve the customer experience.

This truism also applies to the ultimate role of AI – as a “co-pilot” (a term I heard repeatedly over three days) to assist humans in doing their jobs better. AI is not here to replace people, just to make us more effective and efficient.

I hope everyone had a great NRF 2024 and I look forward to seeing what this year brings in retail tech, AI and otherwise!

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