With over 40,000 people, 6,200 brands, 100 countries and over 1,000 exhibitors, this year’s NRF Big Show marked the return of not only the conference, but of the physical store as well. Retailers and industry professionals gathered in NYC for four days to cover everything from modern innovations to back to basic business systems. Powerhouse brands like Walmart, FedEx, Levi’s, and even Martha Stewart shared lessons learned, retail strategies and leadership hindsight to packed session rooms. In addition, tens of thousands of professionals roamed the expo halls looking at AI enablement, total store solutions and last mile service providers to stay current with the new unified consumer.

According to Columbus Consulting’s CEO, Jon Beck, retailers maybe surrounded by innovation and new technology, but “most retailers are looking for foundational enhancements to shore-up their enterprise platforms.” He is advising all of his clients to get their data right before they layer on other solutions. Why the return to basics?    

Similar to Beck, CCI Partner, Richard Pedott, echoed the theme of renewed interest in fundamental retail. Pedott is seeing clients looking for roadmaps with clear short-term cash payoffs and long-term scalable growth opportunity.

What’s at the base of foundational retail? ERP systems. Enterprise Retail Planning Systems are the cornerstone for integration and many retailers have outgrown their legacy platforms. Now, with all of the modern innovations and technology advancements, brands are facing roadblocks. In order for them to leverage source to shelf options, retailers first need to get their data in order, across channels, platforms, systems and functional areas. While this is no small task, according to CCI Associate Partner, Dave Wargo, data management is not complex, it is more about discipline and governance. Consistent, clean data is the source for unified retail enablement. Once the data is defined, organized, categorized and accessible, using the data for machine learning and ultimately AI and Generative AI is clearly within reach. 

At the Columbus Consulting retail leadership breakfast during NRF, C-suite and senior level executives shared what they were looking to solve for at the show. Leading the conversation were: demand planning, data security, merchandising and planning systems, inventory management and POS/RFID. Last mile and PIM were also discussed. Noticeably absent from the priority list was AI implementation, though curiosity was very elevated. Retailers shared in the excitement about AI, but were more realistic in the timing and the definition of AI being a tool not a solution. 

During his panel presentation, CCI Consultant/Retail Expert, Dale Cade shared his thoughts on AI along side of the former SVP of Walmart as they spoke to the current practical uses of AI. A better way to look at AI, according to Cade, is to speak to it like Augmented Intelligence/Information. Many retailers are already leveraging this type of heightened application for chat bot web text customer service, content development (chat GPT), system enhancements (demand forecasting, price and promotion systems) and back-office functions. The main learning shared was to make sure you define a clear use case and identify specifically what you are solving for when looking for AI enabled technology/platforms. With all of the hype and attention, retailers are at risk of adopting AI without a clear roadmap.  Cade further stated that AI can help simplify decision making, build efficiencies and make processes faster. The key is to partner with an expert/consultant who has a background in the business applications of AI and who understands retail to avoid pitfalls, unintended consequences and seasonal impact.   

Other show features focused on brick-and-mortar innovations and unified solutions to integrate commerce. Indeed, what was old is new again with POS taking center stage. The emergence of QR codes, RFID, Blue Tooth enabled tags, are driving point of sale systems to become the intelligence hub of the store.  Modern POS needs to operate across channels and platforms, provide a 360 view of the customer with clientele functions and provide endless aisle options for inventory identification and availability.  

End to end supply chain visibility was also a core topic and a space that Federal Express is stepping into more aggressively with their announcement of FDX, a new platform that connects the entire supply chain. FedEx will be utilizing their propriety data to track packages from shipment through return with much more predictability. The company is building into the $8 trillion in online sales by 2026, delivering 15 million packages daily today and scaling for the expected growth. Similarly, UBER announced UBER Direct to establish themselves as a retail solutions provider with both last mile delivery and as a return service. 

As far as physical innovations at the store levels, NRF hosted a virtual store tour session showcasing leading brands and how they are elevating the store experience to new heights. Statistics show a 71% increase in store development from 2022-2023, which speaks to the return to physical shopping. Brands like Petco are building adjacency models housing pet owner needs under one roof (grocery/pet food, vet care, grooming and educational services).  Community-driven footprints are also on the rise with brands like On Running hosting classes, events, panels and run clubs locally around their stores. And on the tech extreme sides, the industry is seeing Aimé Leon Dore leveraging a full store solution technology to trace the customer/product from floor set to fitting room and beyond. 

So, while the buzz at large was around AI, the industry itself was focused on an array of customer-centric solutions with data at the core. From store systems to inventory tracking to consumer experiences, NRF 2024 had something for everyone.

Want to learn more about NRF and Columbus Consulting? Visit: https://www.columbusconsulting.com/nrf-event-recap/

Stop by next year for NRF 2025 at booth #6831  

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