The pandemic has made retailers less afraid of rapid change, and they came to their industry’s annual trade show this week looking for technology to help them prepare.
Retail executives from around the world came to New York’s Javits Center for a meeting of the National Retail Federation in the mood to invest in technology after learning during the pandemic that retailers with the best technology win.
While at past shows the tech focus has been mostly on hardware, such as robots, drones or self-driving cars, this year’s main highlight was smarter ways to sell – artificial intelligence, platforms that analyze and predict shopper behavior , and how to communicate with them.
The three-day show attracted more than 35,000 attendees this year, more than double last year’s attendance when the surging omicron wave caused several major exhibitors to pull out and 10,000 registered attendees to stay home.
Retailers typically start the new year with optimism, focusing on the sales they can achieve this year rather than the ones they lost last year. As Walmart President and CEO John Furner
Furner and others at the conference acknowledged headwinds in 2023, including persistent inflation and slowing consumer spending, but were generally cautiously optimistic about the year ahead.
Furner noted that the retailer has posted positive sales growth for 30 consecutive months, and the final figure is expected to rise around 7% in 2022, following a 14% rise in 2021.
Macy’s Chairman and CEO Jeff Gennette said Macy’s had a good holiday season in terms of gift shopping, but shoppers are cutting back on their own purchases more than in the past. While there are signs of a downturn, there are still opportunities to grow sales, he said. “Be cautious, but be ready to strike when opportunities and signals arise,” he said.
One way many retailers plan to seize opportunity this year is through technology investments.
More than two-thirds of U.S. retailers plan to increase their technology spending over the next three years, according to Coresight Research, which is preparing a retail technology investment report.
Advances in AI — used to predict trends, communicate with customers or keep shelves stocked — were a theme among technology vendors exhibiting at this year’s show.
Of the 53 companies selected for their “transformative technologies” in the show’s Innovation Lab, more than 25 percent were AI-related, including five with AI in their names.
Dozens of other tech vendors, big and small, also showcased new artificial intelligence tools in the main hall.
Sony Semiconductor Solutions is demonstrating AITROS, its AI sensing platform, which can use visual AI tools to show retailers missing products on shelves, provide sales information for brands, or provide staffing and operational information.
Google Cloud showcased four recently announced artificial intelligence tools, including one for spotting out-of-stock items on store shelves and one for creating more personalized recommendations for online shoppers.
Rosie Bailey, co-founder and chief executive of Nibble Technology in the UK, said retailers are increasingly realizing that artificial intelligence will be critical to their future business development. The company created a negotiation chatbot that can haggle with customers and offer them a personalized price.
Even as recently as last year, retailers were still “kind of rolling their eyes” at mentions of artificial intelligence, Bailey said. But now, at this year’s show, “they’re seeing it as the new standard in technology,” she said.
Retailers can use Nibble to get the best online prices on clearance items, and it’s been proven to increase profits for retail users compared to flat, across-the-board markdowns.
Nibble has a professor of negotiation strategy on its board, and Nibble chatbots have been trained to close deals using proven techniques.