Last weekend at the NRF Big Show 2019, I walked for miles back and forth across the crowded conference red carpet, meeting with several retailers, brands, and vendors to discuss the current and future state of commerce. In between meetings, I caught a few sessions and spent some time at the innovation lab. Luckily for me, my colleagues Brendan Miller and Lily Varon also took me to check out some stores in the Meatpacking District, which happened to be near a great pit-stop pizza shop. My impressions on the 2019 Big Show:

  • Automated “just walk out” checkout is intriguing yet nascent. Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” technology has piqued retailers’ interest in a frictionless checkout experience, but mainstream technology is still playing catch-up. Between the abundance of robots and digital signage featured in many expo booths, I saw a number of automated checkout experiences on display. I stopped by AiFi’s live demo to see how the Amazon Go doppelgänger worked, and overall I was impressed with its shipping-container convenience store concept. For a train station or college campus, these small automated stores make sense. However, there are no AiFi stores operating out in the wild yet, so retailers will wait on proven ROI to proceed.
  • Retailers are looking to become more data-driven. The best session I attended was called “Product paradigm shift: Customer-centric merchandising in the age of data and decision agility.” Kohl’s, rue21, and Chico’s all spoke on the panel about how their organizations became more data-driven. Mark Chrystal, chief analytics officer at rue21, spoke to the difficult but necessary cultural shifts that are critical to this type of digital transformation, including embracing an action learning methodology. With many retailers now looking to turn their troves of customer data into actionable insights, the speakers in this session gave practical advice on how to make the leap to becoming a data-led organization.
  • Conference sessions focused on D&I, women in leadership, and business ethics. Looking through the full conference agenda, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of sessions highlighting women in retail, diversity and inclusion, how to navigate thorny ethical considerations, and even how to leverage a socially conscious commerce strategy (i.e., Patagonia’s session). These speakers often drove home the point that these initiatives are important for several reasons, and they ultimately prove to be good for business, as well. Additionally, with the rise of AI and implications of GDPR, I noticed that questions around a new school of retail business ethics came up several times in conversations.

Next up, I am finishing up research with Brendan Witcher for his annual report on top retail technology investments. If you’re a retail business leader/industry expert who is interested in participating, please reach out to me ( and we can let you know more about our upcoming report and how you can be involved.