Innovation and customer experience prevail at NRF 2020

When you cut through the noise, retail has always been (and still is) about the innovations that improve customer engagement.

Having just returned from NRF 2020, I took some time to contemplate the show’s biggest takeaways and also how the event contrasts to previous years. This year, the two main standouts for me were the fact that innovation is a constant force and a requisite for retailers who want to remain or become more competitive. Secondly, that the customer experience must always be in the crosshairs of their strategy.

I observed a strong presence of companies that are working hard to reduce friction along the value chain. Some seemed to have evolved from last year, with clear improvements in offerings and a focus on the customer experience. Interestingly, I did observe that many of the larger technology companies did not seem to illustrate the agility to meet the challenges retailers are facing – an agility that many of the smaller firms seems to have in their DNA. Of course, I may have missed certain firms, but for me, the major exception to my observation here is Intel. It took me several attempts to secure a tour, but I finally found success – and it was worth it. Here’s why.

It’s all about the customer experience – and engaging with them

Intel did a terrific job of demonstrating how their technology and partnerships are delivering innovations in the marketplace. Here are a few examples of what they had in their booth:

  • An interactive game environment for customer waiting in a line
  • A sustainable lighting system that can easily be reused, but can be reconfigured in many different ways
  • A robotic arm that can take orders and dispense up to 200 cups of coffee an hour. (Starbucks – are you listening?)
  • A wall with conductive paint and would play tones when touched – quetainment
  • A frictionless store
  • Loss-prevention features for checkout – image recognition and self-checkout with facial recognition
  • Swift delivery boxes, intended to compete with Amazon boxes
  • Self-service shipment solutions
  • Innovative charging tower – see below

It’s not about bells and whistles innovation

What does Intel fully understand that many other firms may not currently? All of its featured innovations are about creating a compelling and engaging customer experience. Take the coffee-serving robot, for example. It engaged customer through fun technology and gamification, all while establishing a loyalty bond and giving the customer what they wanted – a really fast and good cup of coffee. Or the charging tower. By enabling customers to charge their phone and walk around the store to shop while the phone charges, Intel enables customer to experience retail instead of customers in a store primarily experiencing their phones. The results? They have seen a 47% increase in sales by engaging the customer in this simple way – all while providing a service to the customer.

AI: from aspiration to execution

This year, I noticed that there has been a progression from attendees talking about aspiring to incorporate AI into their processes to currently looking to execute on AI innovations – because there is better understanding and proof of what AI can do.

Symphony RetailAI was proud to sponsor a Big Ideas session, the purpose of which was to help the industry recognize that AI is well beyond just case studies and siloed instances of success. AI has matured to the point now that it is driving real business value. Successful software companies that are leading the way have delivered an AI platform that can be leveraged in many ways. The technology companies that have scattered use cases will struggle because they have an instance in one area and perhaps another one in another part of the enterprise. They lack a platform, a common architecture, integration, command of the data repository etc.  

A key message of our session – it’s critical to pick the right partner – one that has an enterprise-grade AI platform and can demonstrate more than a few use cases. This is why we selected the two major retailers SpartanNash and Dollar General – each enumerating on the real benefits they have seen through their use of AI.

Microsoft booth and AI executive tour

We were honored to partner with Microsoft at NRF and demonstrate our AI capabilities across the supply chain and the store. We have partnered with MS via their Azure Cloud for years, but we also partner with Microsoft to provide retail solutions that improve customer experiences and satisfaction.

The AI executive tour was a very nice addition to NRF this year. Symphony RetailAI was one of the few stops on the tour and we were able to demo the real-world delivery of innovative solutions that help drive profitable growth.

The wrap

I found it particularly exciting to talk with many retailers about how we are delivering the high-performance supply chain, AI-enabling category planning and management, focusing on the store with the intelligent shelf – and are working with retailers and CPGs to improve their collaboration to better serve the customer.

NRF has always been a great place to exchange ideas and though we had good traffic and conversation last year, it was doubled this year for us. The increased numbers yielded meaningful conversations and proved to me that the tide is changing around the understanding and the immediate use of AI in retail. And, it seems to be a global trend, as I was taken by how many international attendees I had the opportunity to engage with.

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