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Crystal Ball Gaze into the Future of Retail: Key Takeaways from NRF 2024

The energy was electric at NRF: 2024 Retail’s Big Show. The National Retail Federation (NRF), is one of the largest retail conferences in the world — a hot spot for industry titans and innovators to revel in the milestones, unravel the current trends, and delve into the future of retail. And we sent an insider into the buzz and frenzy.

NRF is the place to see and be seen in retail. Ideas for the future are born, industry trends are set, and legendary partnerships are forged. Think massive exhibit halls, endless aisles of booths, and creative retail concepts around every corner. Between the luminary keynote speakers, celebrity appearances, innovation awards, and the sheer spectacle of scale, it’s hard to capture all the excitement in one glance.

Let’s explore this year’s biggest takeaways.

Takeaway 1: The Thrills and Chills of AI in Retail Stores

This may not come as much of a surprise, but one of the hottest topics at NRF this year was the power and potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in retail. What was surprising was the level of imagination and progress this technology is achieving. From personalised recommendations to inventory management, retail AI solutions are reshaping operations and customer interactions to enable more immersive, seamless, and tailored experiences.

There was an eye-opening demo showing how AI can generate on-brand visual promotions in real time. By simply entering a product URL, their platform sourced related images, overlaid custom backgrounds and text, and created a polished display ad in minutes. Retailers could also effortlessly share the ad with specific locations and promptly update visual displays to mirror its content instantly.

This presentation stood out because it showed how much time and money AI-driven innovation could save businesses. The traditional way to create a new display ad is to review an entire weeks-long process with your ad agency. The ability to instantly generate and distribute customised brand promotions across locations without any manual effort is incredible. Traditional costs would soar into the tens of thousands of dollars per campaign. But this company’s AI platform can do it in minutes — for a fraction of the cost. Seeing those efficiencies firsthand had the whole audience buzzing about AI’s potential.

The rep admitted they’re still navigating legal considerations associated with sourcing visual assets, highlighting an important tension. Implementing AI through customer-facing services raises crucial legal and ethical questions about sourcing content, protecting privacy, and maintaining brand integrity.

Another exciting AI experience was learning about how one major convenience store chain uses AI to customise in-store audio messaging across thousands of stores. With just the push of a button, their technology instantly converts a single message into multiple voices, accents, dialects, and languages. Imagine the ability to customise messaging in real time for different regions and demographics.

But even the coolest tech has its risks. The rapid pace of innovation makes it impossible for laws to keep up. Although there are recent government regulations emphasising AI safety and security, experts contend that these measures fall short of addressing the comprehensive concerns within this swiftly evolving landscape.

Exploring AI’s legal aspects is essential for innovation. It shouldn’t be a buzzkill; open discussion refines tech advancements, ensuring they’re better suited for everyone. At Mood, we’re also exploring responsible ways to employ AI, such as using it to recommend retail audio playlists based on customer data unique to each store. Innovation is thrilling, but we must consider its transformative potential and risks at each step.

Takeaway 2: Decoding Retail Media Strategies for Brand Success

Many people are learning about retail media and what its increased prevalence means for their brand strategies. And NRF provided an invaluable crash course on this emerging trend, revealing varied perspectives across the industry.

On the show floor, a discussion with an executive from a discount store chain explored how retailers can leverage retail media to monetise in-store audio networks. The executive expressed keen interest and envisioned ads from prominent brands like Doritos, Snickers, and Coca-Cola playing in his stores. His palpable excitement showed the appeal of retail media for value-driven brands.

In contrast, luxury brands exhibited a more reserved stance toward retail media. Citing concerns about preserving an exclusive brand image and curated in-store experiences, they demonstrated a cautious approach to this evolving trend. This dichotomy perfectly encapsulates the diverse retail landscape.

For retailers focused on high volume, retail media generates intrigue and dollar signs. But prestige brands worry over how it could detract from their aura of exclusivity. With potential profits and brand reputation risks, tailored strategies are crucial for all brands, whether high-, middle- or low-end.

Mood’s retail media team is helping brands capitalise on the upside of retail media’s revenue potential while mitigating downsides, such as potential impacts on brand prestige and exclusivity. The mixed reception at NRF highlighted the need to understand each brand’s distinct goals.

Takeaway 3: The Retail Data Demand

Data is everywhere, but that wasn’t always the case. Just five years ago, no one cared about the data behind the songs played in stores. But today, brands want those details — how often does that track play? Who is listening and where? Do customers give it a thumbs up or down?

Brands eat up these data points because they paint a clearer picture of their customers. If a song takes off on social media in a specific city, targeting ads and products to that trending tune makes sense, right? Data gives clues to optimise the experience.

For example, there was an automated pizza kiosk that was quite popular with attendees. To use it, you had to type in your phone number, choose from three types of pizza, receive a QR code, and voilà, out popped your hot meal from a heated locker. Meanwhile, that machine tracked phone type, pizza preferences, and even how frequently the locker door opened and closed. Every step people took for that free slice was a treasure trove of information for the kiosk owner.

And all that information had use and value for future targeting. Retailers must focus on earning customer trust by collecting and interpreting data meaningfully. Mindlessly amassing data doesn’t make it valuable. Instead, brands should be proactive yet selective regarding the types of data gathered — staying power comes from building consumer confidence. If retailers use data to thoughtfully enhance experiences, the retail industry can maintain its vibrancy while keeping the consumer at the centre. The intricate data demands at NRF showed that we’re only beginning to unlock the potential of data in retail when it’s handled responsibly.

Takeaway 4: Navigating the Retail Digital Signage Maze

Digital signage was displayed prominently around every corner and packed into every booth. What’s the allure of a digital sign? Its charm lies in its ability to customise the customer experience and contribute to a store’s ambience. This technology is evolving from a mere display to a captivating and immersive experience, guiding customers through personalised product journeys and adapting to the store’s mood and offerings in real-time. Digital signage has become an integral part of the modern retail encounter.

Despite this digital retail solution’s ubiquity, the challenge is making sense of it all. Retailers, inundated by an array of terms like “immersive technology” and “customer experience platforms,” struggle to differentiate genuine value amid the messaging clutter. This bombardment doesn’t just confuse retailers; it equally overwhelms their target audience — the shoppers. When retailers adopt the “everything, including the kitchen sink” approach, consumers find themselves navigating through a sea of information, making it harder to discern what each brand has to offer.

The folks at NRF showcased AI’s power in advancing digital retail signage, enabling real-time customisation, localised content delivery, and other innovative features. Nevertheless, the competitive environment within the digital signage space adds a layer of complexity. Industry providers, even some at NRF, often employ obscure terminology, making it challenging for attendees to discern their offerings.

People were wandering NRF asking where the digital signage booths were — who could blame them? Attendees were swimming in digital signage, yet vague terms muddled the straightforward identification of these solutions, adding another dimension of confusion to an already complex landscape. This disconnection only compounds the challenge for brands seeking clear and concise solutions.

“Immersive technology” appeared in every conversation, yet its definition — and, thus, individuals’ interpretations of it — varied, from interactive digital experiences to personalised apps and virtual reality. The overwhelming variety highlights a need for precision in decoding buzzwords. As providers venture into immersive solutions, it’s vital to understand each retailer’s unique vision to foster thoughtful engagement and strong connections with consumers.

Takeaway 5: Welcoming Receptions and Honest Exchanges

The energy at NRF affirmed that brick-and-mortar retail has returned in a big way. With attendance packed to the walls, aisles overflowing, and sessions at full capacity, the enthusiasm felt palpable.

Beyond the impressive scale, the open, vibrant dialogue also stood out. Major brands — we’re talking Gucci, Crocs, Claire’s, and Burberry — were eager to engage in transparent discussions about retail’s opportunities and challenges. Whether chatting on the exhibit floor, between sessions, or in line for free pizza, retailers were receptive to sharing insights. Everyone — attendees, presenters and exhibitors alike — was eager to talk. These dynamic conversations, planned and spontaneous, showed the vital importance of in-person connections and that physical retail’s revival is more than a fleeting trend. Online shopping and interactions simply can’t replace thoughtful in-store experiences.

Navigating NRF’s digital wonderland uncovered the immense potential for in-store innovation. Though challenges persist, the vibrant creativity and sense of community instil confidence in a future where retail experiences are bound to become even more captivating and enriching.