Analysis: NRF Big Show demonstrates AI has arrived in retail

Exhibits at the recent NRF 2019 “Big Show” conference confirm how universal artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming in retail, according to Retail Systems Research.

According to “NRF Big Show Review and Beyond: Retail Technologies and Trends to Watch in 2019,” a recent webinar from RSR Research, many of the conference’s 800 vendors were exhibiting AI-enabled solutions.

“We were prepared for AI in robotics,” said Steve Rowen, managing partner, Retail Systems Research. “We were not prepared for AI in everything.”

Rowen said a lot of vendors demonstrated AI-enabled solutions designed to “augment” human activities.

“Vendors were anxious to convince listeners their solutions weren’t designed to replace minimum-wage workers,” said Rowen. “I saw a lot of solutions designed to help free up store associates to perform more important tasks.”

Brian Kilcourse, cofounder of Retail Systems Research, said there were also many AI-enabled video analysis solutions on display.

“The typical use cases for video analytics are checking planogram compliance or stock levels, as well as looking at the queues in the store and abandoned carts or heat-mapping the store to see where the hot end caps are,” said Kilcourse. “Retailers can get exception alerts when things fall out of normal ranges of behavior.”

Kilcourse also observed that AI is being used to support corporate management. “AI humanizes very complex analytical structures so you don’t have to hire an army of whitecoats to understand what the data is telling you,” said Kilcourse.

In addition, Retail Systems Research viewed demonstrations of a large number of AI-enabled robotic solutions that perform tasks such as picking and counting inventory. Robotic AI technology is also being integrated into “smart” shopping carts that help guide customers in the store.

“One expert predicted that within two years we will co-exist with robots that pick items while we shop at the same time,” said Rowen.

Paula Rosenblum, cofounder and managing partner of Retail Systems Research, reviewed some key retail trends for 2019.

“Holiday sales were the best since 2011, but investors had a mixed reaction,” said Rosenblum. “Many retailers are operating on ‘retail time’ – with legacy portfolios getting in the way and inhibiting innovation.”

In addition, Rosenblum said the volume of cross-channel transactions has reached a level where retailers must address the associated cost of buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and buy online-return-in-store (BORIS) efforts.

“BORIS is where inventory is becoming distorted and getting lost,” said Rosenblum.

Rosenblum also said that the cloud has become the solution delivery vehicle of choice for retailers, with one positive side effect being it drives them to use standardized software.