NRF 2024   //   January 12, 2024

NRF’s Big Show is all about AI in 2024, as retail’s biggest conference has become a tech event 

Zeitgeisty topics like artificial intelligence, omnichannel retail and retail media are set to be among the major topics at this year’s NRF Big Show at the Javits Center in New York City.

The event — which runs from Saturday to Tuesday — is one of retail’s biggest conferences, thanks to its panels, opportunities for networking and vendor displays. Last year’s event drew 35,000 attendees. 

Given its size, and its proximity to the new year, NRF remains a tentpole event that many brand and retail executives attend in some shape or form. It sets the agenda for the new year, underscoring what type of technology will be critical to the retail industry this year. Even if executives don’t step foot in the Javits Center, they likely will attend a happy hour or two. It’s a chance for attendees to hear how everybody’s fourth quarter sales came in, reunite with old colleagues, and vent to technology vendors about their biggest gripes with a particular SaaS company. Or, catch up on emails while avoiding said vendors. 

As is the case with any big industry conference, some executives find NRF to be more relevant than others. Technology vendors eagerly await the chance to pitch new clients, and meet existing ones face-to-face. But, brand and retail executives who don’t go in with a specific purpose — to, say, find a new CX platform, meet new investors or connect with a narrow group of executives — can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by a sea of innovation booths.

It underscores how much NRF has become a technology event, with some saying it’s closer to CES than to Shoptalk. 

A quick scan of the lengthy three-day schedule features dozens of sessions that touch on the use of technology such as retail media, virtual reality and automation. Sessions about “transforming” areas of retail like customer experience and frontline operations are prominent throughout the agenda for instance. 

As was the case at CES, AI is front and center this year at NRF. There are more than a dozen events about AI on Sunday alone, according to an agenda posted online. Topics range from generative AI to using AI to boost point-of-sale. Vendors that sell AI technology will have a presence at the event, too.

Melissa Minkow, director of retail strategy at CI&T, told Modern Retail that she is looking forward to learning more about AI at NRF but wants to be sure that sessions aren’t repetitive. “I’m really hoping for some new applications of AI and to really hear some great retailer examples of success stories on that,” she said. Minkow especially wants to see AI applied to retail functions outside merchandising.

As in years past, there will be an “Innovation Lab” with new-to-market retail technology around machine learning, robotics and more. More than 1,000 exhibitors will dot the “Expo Floor” to share their products and retail solutions.

Food will be more of an emphasis at NRF than in years past, too. New to the show this year is a “Foodservice Innovation Zone” that showcases more than 50 food tech-focused booths. The solutions featured at these booths may vary from smart labels to theft prevention technology.

John Clear, senior director in the Consumer and Retail group of Alvarez & Marshal, told Modern Retail he is curious to see how tech vendors will pitch their products to grocery brands and grocery stores. “That’s an area where I think grocery retailers, apart from some notable exceptions, have been slightly behind the curve in terms of implementing more technology within stores,” he said.

Compared to previous years, this year’s NRF programming seems focused more on practical use cases, Minkow said. Other NRF events, especially during the heyday of the pandemic, focused on “big macro forces… out of retailers’ control” like the supply chain crisis, inflation and the pandemic, she said. “I think this year, the agenda is reflecting a bit more of an in-control moment with retailers to now be like, ‘Okay, let’s just nail down the details and fine tune our operational models,’” she added.

On the speaker roster, there are a number of executives from retail giants like Walmart, Ikea, Macy’s and Amazon. While some execs from startup brands like Casper and Glossier are speaking on panels, small- to medium-sized businesses are not as well represented this year as large enterprises and retail chains. According to smaller brands looking to connect with buyers and investors, the large-scale event can feel directionless for achieving their specific goals.

“Obviously we’re there for the cocktails,” one DTC marketer, who’s planning to attend some sessions and after-hour parties this year, quipped. But jokes aside, he said in the last couple of years NRF has become increasingly focused on software solutions, and not so much on the “retail.” “I don’t really want to talk to vendors, to be honest,” the executive said. “I don’t mind hearing out pitches, but it can get to be too much at these types of events.” 

Meanwhile, three CPG brand executives who spoke to Modern Retail said they aren’t attending NRF’s conference — with one saying it’s time-consuming and their company prefers to attend more specialized trade shows, such as Expo West, to meet retail buyers.  

While it does have specialized components, NRF is ultimately a general event, Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis Groupe, said. “That’s one of the pros and cons of NRF,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily the perfect place to go if you want to see all of the innovations in digital customer experience or loss prevention or retail merchandising. There are specialty shows that focus on each of those things.”