NRF 2024   //   January 16, 2024

Generative AI dominates the NRF conversation

Retailers at the NRF Big Show this year say they are folding generative AI into their customer service, merchandising and marketing to gain a competitive edge.

Some, like Walmart, are using generative AI-powered search to recommend products for everything from birthday parties to the Super Bowl. Others, like Carrefour, are using generative AI to craft text and images for marketing campaigns. And still more, like Target, are using generative AI to rework product descriptions to make them more optimized for search performance.

Generative AI has become one of retail’s biggest buzzwords over the past year. The topic is not new, but it’s gained steam ever since November 2022, when Open AI launched Chat GPT and gave consumers and companies easier access to the technology. Today, more retailers are using generative AI for everything from answering customer service inquiries via chatbot to developing training materials for employees. According to a survey Google shared at NRF, 81% of retail decision makers feel “urgency” to adopt generative AI.

In a bid not to be behind the emerging tech curve, many vendors at NRF this year are touting their AI features. More than 20 exhibitors have “AI” in their titles, while companies such as Google, Yoobic and Salesforce released new AI tools or research in time for the show. There were more than a dozen events about AI on Sunday alone, according to an agenda posted online.

As executives stressed at NRF, it’s important to tailor generative AI to your particular goals, customers and employees. “Generative AI is one of those things where it’s death by a thousand use cases,” Chandhu Nair, svp of data, analytics and computational intelligence and marketing technology at Lowe’s, said in a session on Monday. Likewise, with generative AI, “you can test fast, you can fail fast and you need to embrace that mode of thinking,” Jessyn Katchera, executive director and head of e-commerce for France at Carrefour, explained.

Here’s how some retailers have found success by using generative AI, as described at the event.

Customer experience

Many of Walmart’s AI tools revolve around the customer experience in stores and online. In late 2022, Walmart introduced “Text to Shop,” which allows users to order products via text with messages such as “I need 2% milk.” Now, Walmart is investing more in generative AI with a more advanced version of a search tool in tandem with Microsoft.

Instead of searching for individual items like “balloons” or “cake,” shoppers can now type something like “Help me plan a unicorn-themed party” and be given a whole list of curated items by occasion, Anshu Bhardwaj, svp and coo of Walmart’s global technology, said at a session on Sunday. That not only saves shoppers time, but also creates a moment of delight for them, she said. Walmart previously released a beta version of the tool in November.

Canadian Tire, meanwhile, is building a shopping assistant chatbot that it will release in the next few months, Cari Covent, head of AI and emerging technology at Canadian Tire, said in a session on Sunday. “The value lies in giving our customers the opportunity to interact with us in a very different way and get the information they’re looking for much quicker,” she explained.

Content generation

Other retailers are using generative AI to speed up the content creation process. French grocer Carrefour is using generative AI to create text and visual assets for its marketing studio, Katchera said. Instead of having to wait “many weeks” to turn campaigns around, Carrefour can now do so in a matter of days, he said.

In addition, Nvidia spoke to its new partnership with Getty Images to create “ready-to-license visuals” that retailers can use for ad campaigns. Customers type out what they want the background of a photo to look like, then upload pictures of people or objects to stick into the foreground. “It just makes your creative team, your marketing and media team a lot more efficient and gives them more creative ideas,” Azita Martin, Nvidia’s vice president of AI for retail, said on Sunday.

Content generation ranks highly — but not number one — in ways in which retailers are using AI technology, according to Modern Retail data. A little more than half of respondents (51%) said they are using AI for chatbots or assistants, closely followed by copy generation (43%). Image generation sat at 18%.

Employee resources

Finally, retailers said they are using generative AI to help their employees be more productive. Canadian Tire, for instance, built its own version of Chat GPT that it calls “Chat CTC.” (The “CTC” stands for “Canadian Tire Corporation.”) “Thousands of employees” are using the tool in a different ways, Covent said, but “everything goes back to our business strategy.”

Canadian Tire’s team that looks at online reviews, for instance, uses Chat CTC to respond to questions or complaints, “obviously with the right human oversight,” Covent said. In addition, Canadian Tire’s tech service managers use the AI feature to troubleshoot and respond to incidents more quickly by drawing on similar situations in the past. Finally, its data governance group uses the program to classify data into domains and subdomains, and then use those to write descriptions of that data, Covent said.

Target, meanwhile, has offered customers chat bots for a long time, Melissa Ludack, vp of data science at Target, said in a panel on Sunday. But now, “we’re working on improving a lot of our chat bots that we have for our internal tools,” she said.

Walmart has built up its “Ask Sam” voice assistant for retail associates. The tool allows employees to look up prices, access store maps and view sales information, among other functions. Employees can also see if an item is in stock in a particular size in a different store, and then put that item on hold.

In addition, Walmart launched a new generative AI tool called “My Assistant” for employees in August. The feature can be used to summarize documents and free up time so associates “can focus on the tasks that are distinctly human, like generating new ideas, crafting strategy and building relationships,” Walmart said in a press release. Walmart is expanding the tool to 11 new countries in 2024, including Canada, Mexico and Guatemala. It expects a 50% increase in the user base for “My Assistant” this year.

It can be intimidating to test out generative AI, Carrefour’s Katchera acknowledged. “Don’t get paralyzed because you don’t know everything,” he advised NRF attendees. “Just get started.”