Blog post

NRF takeaways 2024: AI is everywhere but people power rules

Despite the AI hype - it’s still people power that rules the retail roost.

  • Topic
    Retail trends

AI was everywhere at NRF 2024.

It was the focus of every panel discussion, every vendor was rushing to shoehorn AI into their offering, and it even led to Microsoft’s Shelley Bransten uttering the now viral quote: “You can’t spell Retail without AI.”

She has a point. But underneath the clamor for the ‘next big thing’ and unleashing the power of the undoubtedly exciting opportunities AI gives us, the wise heads in the room fell back to the key, timeless, underlying message; great retail is, and always will be, about people.

As Paul Sims, Chief Architect at Primark, says: “Amongst the many robots being demonstrated were pizza-bots, fries-cooking bots and humanoid robots mimicking warehouse staff limb-for-limb. But robots won’t eat your meals, won’t shop in your retail stores and certainly won’t order your pizzas.”

Now don’t get us wrong, we love great tech. We love making it, we love using it, and we love being champions of it. But we always come back to the people great tech serves – chiefly your customers and your store associates. Because it’s here, where tech, AI, automation, and people converge that magic truly happens.

Let’s dig into it further with our takeaways from NRF 2024:

1. Empowering store associates is non-negotiable

The importance of empowering store associates was a big theme throughout NRF. To a large extent, retail is always going to face challenges like high staff turnover. However, if you can put better and more powerful tools into the hands of your store associates, not only will it stem the talent drain (because they’ll be able to do their jobs more effectively), it will empower them to deliver better experiences for your customers.

Here’s an example, when customers come into a store today they already have a lot of knowledge. This means that store associates need to be even more knowledgeable. If the customer wants to know how sustainable an item is, or if there’s a different size in stock, or what it pairs well with, or if it can be shipped to an address of their choosing, then the store associate should have all the answers. And, if they have a tool in the palm of their hand that gives them all these answers, they will be.

As our Chief Expansion Officer, Isabell Aakervik, explains: “Stores and store associates are the key to great retail and the best shopping experiences.

“It’s why empowering store associates with the tools and information they need leads to loyal customers, trust, better relationships, and the all important word of mouth recommendations when the customer shares what a great experience they’ve had.”

“We know staff retention is another huge challenge facing retailers so my advice is to do things that make your store associates want to stay. If they feel empowered, if they have state-of-the-art technology, and if they are able to do their job without frustrations of say the cash register not working, then they are much more likely to stay. Ask yourself how you can make them happy and make their lives easier?”

“So know how to empower and embrace your store associates because they are the most valuable asset you have. And they can do a lot more to help you acquire new customers than expensive digital advertising can.

2. Item-level RFID is a game-changer

Accurate inventory is retail’s Holy Grail. It’s impossible to fulfill an order if you don’t know you have an item in stock, stock replenishment can’t be automated without an accurate inventory tracking system, and, as a result, your business and your CX both suffer. Without accurate inventory management, you’ll miss out on sales and your costs will spiral – you may as well wave goodbye to your bottom line.

The latest RFID technology is pivotal for retailers to be successful. It significantly improves efficiency and CX. RFID is helping to streamline returns processes, give 100% accuracy in inbound and outbound item tracking, and even help transform the checkout process.

At NRF, this was on show in our collaboration with SML.

Dean Frew, CTO and senior vice president of RFID solutions at SML, explains: “ Despite not being a point of sale company, our system significantly enhances retail processes. The solution is simple: shift to item-level tracking and conduct frequent stock counts, achieving over 98% accuracy in receiving. This data is then utilized for various operations like online purchases picked up in-store, markdowns, returns, and other store processes. 

“Now, when this technology is integrated with the POS, it’s a real game-changer. Imagine a store without barcode scanning but instead using RFID readers to identify products, even to the extent of knowing the serial number of a specific item sold. This level of detail empowers us to combat fraudulent returns. For instance, if someone tries returning blue medium t-shirts that were never sold, our system flags it. Moreover, we can update the store’s entrance gates to prevent false alarms when these items leave the store.”

“And the benefits we see from this are huge. Firstly, it drastically reduces checkout fraud. Unlike traditional barcode scanning, RFID tags eliminate human error, ensuring accurate and efficient readings. Secondly, it enhances loss prevention by automatically adjusting inventory. Lastly, it significantly streamlines the checkout process by minimizing friction and improving efficiency.”

“And let me share with you what other retailers have found. Retailers who’ve made this shift have seen increased sales due to enhanced availability, reduced strain on store processes, they’ve gotten rid of 10% of their inventory because they don’t need that excess, and they see a 95% drop in order cancel rates because when a customer places an order for in-store pickup, there’s confidence because the store won’t commit to it unless it’s physically available. 

“So it’s about enabling retailers to know their inventory. This doesn’t just create happier customers; it significantly boosts the retailer’s revenue.”

3. The future is in your hands

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” And the great thing about being a retailer in 2024 is you can control your dream and make your dream a reality.

Retail changes so fast. Sure, the pandemic accelerated a lot of digitalization but where we are now compared to where we were at the start of 2020 feels like a difference in lightyears. And because retail changes so fast you need to be able to change with it.

This is where the best-of-breed, MACH mind-set comes in. To think one vendor can keep pace with all the changes happening in retail is crazy. It’s impossible. With the MACH approach, you can build your ecosystem with best-of-breed solutions that are built to adapt to change.

As Jens Levin, Sitoo CEO, explained at the MACH Haus discussion at NRF: “Imagine a field of flowers that’s full of the most beautiful flowers there are. What you can do as a retailer today is walk into that field and pick the flowers you want to make your own perfect bouquet. This is exactly what MACH technology is like. And what MACH does is give you the ability to pick new flowers when new needs arise because all the MACH products are built to interact and integrate with each other. 

“MACH gives you the freedom you need today and the assurance you need to meet needs in the future that we don’t know about yet.”

In Summary

NRF always starts the year off on the right note and this year was now exception. Retail is always a challenge but it’s also the most exciting industry on the planet. We can’t wait to see what this year has in store and, if there’s one thing we know for certain, it promises to be one hell of a ride.

If you’d like to have a chat with us about anything we covered in this article, we’d love to hear from you.

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