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John Ryan

AI at NRF: Tread Carefully

Artificial Intelligence is becoming part of the design arsenal

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Photography: Jason Dixson Photography

IT’S ONLY A COUPLE of weeks since the Javits Center was overrun in Midtown Manhattan as the faithful gathered for the annual event that is “Retail’s Big Show,” presented by the National Retail Federation (NRF; Washington, D.C.).

Judging by the numbers of those walking through the center’s giant halls and looking at the multiple outsize displays, this was, indeed, a big show, and there was a single big idea: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

AI at NRF: Tread Carefully

Photography: Jason Dixson Photography

Legions of companies had set up shop purporting to be purveyors of the latest must-have for retailers, and almost all of them, to a considerable degree, claimed that their “solutions” were “powered” by AI. All of this translates to data and how it is managed – and what it is capable of.

The majority of retailers claimed to have terabytes of data, and the task that lies ahead, according to many NRF displays, is what we can do with the data. All pretty clear then, but there are problems.

Talking to those patrolling the show in search of a silver bullet, eight to 10 out of 10 seemed to have a different view of what AI actually involved and how it might be usefully (and cost-effectively) employed in a store. Then there were the vendors – many of them seemed to be offering answers to problems that retailers may be unaware that they have.

All that could meaningfully be said was that AI is becoming part of a retailer’s armory, whether for understanding customers or making shopping easier. The difficulty is in assessing how much weight should be afforded to AI and how well it is understood by those who will be using it.

There is little clarity on this point, and it seems entirely possible that AI could be 2024’s metaverse – a sparkling light that offers much but which dims somewhat on closer examination. Be careful, then, not to be dazzled by the artificial headlights. “All that glisters…” Well, you know the rest.

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John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.

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