From NRF 2024: AI Is Everywhere But It Ain’t Everything

By: Jim Roddy, President & CEO at the RSPA

This could be my “the emperor isn’t wearing clothes” moment for the retail IT channel. Or you could feel what I’m about to say is heresy.

I was asked repeatedly this week at NRF’s 2024 Big Show, held Jan. 14-16 in New York City, what was the one big thing I noticed. The obvious answer should have been AI (artificial intelligence). Most NRF education sessions mentioned AI in the title. Booth backdrops and promotional banners throughout the sprawling Javits Center touted AI. Microsoft’s giant booth was adorned with multiple phrases in all-white letters – except the “a” and “i” in “Retail” were colored please-look-at-me jet black.

Heck, after a conversation about AI in one of the NRF expo hall aisles, I turned around and saw four guys wearing T-shirts with “I AM AI” across the chest. I thought computers were aspiring to be humans, not the other way around.

AI was everywhere, but in many instances it was a buzzword at best and bait-and-switch at worst. Maybe converting a document into an online form is AI and maybe using voice instead of typing directions is AI but those sure aren’t new AI applications. I’ve had that capability in the back of my jeans pocket for a few years.

The AI hype I saw and heard at NRF compelled me to dig up generative AI research published in Aug. 2023 by Canalys Chief Analyst and RSPA Board member Jay McBain. (I searched for that report by typing with my fingers, so I guess I AM NOT AI.)

McBain said, The biggest risk for Gen AI is that it never becomes a product at all (similar to the struggles of IBM Watson after winning the game show Jeopardy). It will instead become a “feature” of every product we use today – especially SaaS products that run most business functions. … Gen AI won’t look much different than business intelligence or data analytics dashboard functionality from years gone by.

That’s both the challenge and the opportunity for the retail IT channel. If vendors, ISVs, VARs, and other solution providers impulsively slap “AI” on every function as a marketing ploy instead of digging into the actual highest and best use of this technology, someone else will reap the rewards instead of us and our merchants. That would be like giving your kid a trophy emblazoned with the word “TOUR DE FRANCE CHAMPION” for not falling off his bike. That doesn’t make him or her a winner; it makes them falsely believe they’re a winner and stop trying to develop into a legitimate champion.

Visit the RSPA Solution Center – a web platform designed to connect VARs and ISVs to providers of innovative solutions

My favorite NRF comment about AI came from Glenn Allison, VP of Customer Facing Applications Development at retailer Tractor Supply Company. During his breakout presentation with Shash Anand of RSPA member SOTI, Allison shared details of his company’s “Hey GURA” application that enables associates to ask the app a customer question they can’t answer themselves and immediately receive details via their headset in complete, easy-to-understand sentences.

“There’s a lot of generative AI buzz, but this (GURA) is real,” Allison said, “It’s not just generative AI; it’s genuine AI. It’s purpose-built to take care of our associates so they can help our customers better.”

Many in our channel talk about AI as if it’s one general technology, a magic application that will immediately revolutionize the technological landscape and solve everyone’s challenges in one swoop. The true benefits of AI are its niche applications and the outcomes it generates for merchants, associates, consumers, and the tech companies who support them.

Despite the breathless hype, AI isn’t the next big thing. Because it’s not big. In reality, it’s an infinite number of little things that can optimize and customize technology applications – if our channel is willing to apply our creativity and leave the hype to everyone else.

Foodservice Innovation Zone
The Foodservice Innovation Zone debuted at NRF this year, and immersing myself in a venue we first previewed for RSPA members this summer was enjoyable. The area was heavy on grocery, c-store, and vending technology and featured a wide array of technologies including:

  • AI – of course!
  • Augmented reality
  • Autonomous/unattended stores (this was the most frequently seen tech in the Foodservice Innovation Zone)
  • Biometric ID and biometric payments
  • Digital ordering
  • Digital signage
  • End-to-end POS technology (by RSPA member PAR)
  • IT infrastructure (by RSPA member Scale Computing)
  • Labor management (by RSPA member TimeForge)
  • Online ordering
  • Meal planning integration
  • POS services (by RSPA member Washburn Computer Group)
  • Touch solutions (by RSPA member MicroTouch)

It will be interesting to see how the Foodservice Innovation Zone morphs next year as food continues to spread like melted butter into retail. The RSPA is proud to be an Association Partner of the NRF for the Foodservice Innovation Zone.

More Insights from NRF 2024
NRF Chairman John Furner of Walmart said at the opening of the event that the 113th NRF show was expected to attract over 1,000 exhibitors and nearly 40,000 total attendees. It sure felt like a Big Show to me, and everyone I engaged with on the show floor and in the hallways shared that sentiment. The event has certainly bounced back to its pre-COVID numbers – to the relief of many.

  • Furner opened with an insightful and timely quote from Walmart founder Sam Walton: “You can’t just keep doing what works one time. Everything is changing. To succeed, stay out in front of change.”
  • Many vendors I talked with are hoping for positive change this year after what they told me was a rough 2023. They said many of their VAR partners amassed inventory after COVID and deployed that hardware throughout 2023. Good for the reseller and their merchants but bad for the vendors who saw their sales take a hit over the past 12 months. Compounding the situation were merchants taking a wait-and-see approach to technology installations and refreshes. I heard from several executives that the second half of 2024 should be positive for everyone in our channel (distys, vendors, ISVs, and VARs) and for some reason I can’t explain (and they couldn’t either) April was the most frequently mentioned month when more product should start flowing.

Finally, Let’s Talk Basketball (and Business)
Those who know me well know basketball is in my blood; I’m a former coach, broadcaster, analyst, and college player. In fact, one open afternoon during an RSPA Inspire leadership conference in Florida in 2019, instead of hitting the pool I caught a ride with Bruce Mann of CRS to take in a junior college basketball game.

So I was stoked that basketball Hall of Famer and successful business executive Magic Johnson was the Big Show’s Monday keynote. Among his top insights:

  • To succeed, you have to go step-by-step. It takes discipline. That’s how I got 14 championship rings as a player and executive.
  • Competition is good for you. Competitors raise the level of your game. I knew Larry Bird was taking a thousand shots a day, so I had to take a thousand shots myself.
  • Becoming a business professional is a lot like becoming a basketball professional. You have to go against people older than you. You go from 32 games to 82 games. You might not be the best on the team.
  • If I’m prepared, I feel like I’m going to win. I only hire people who have that same mindset.
  • Figure out what you want to do and then give yourself three years. Come up with a plan and then get mentors. When I was with the (Los Angeles) Lakers, I asked if I could cold call all the season ticket holders who were CEOs so I could take them to lunch and learn from them. Six of them became my mentors and business partners. Get your plan and get a mentor to hold yourself accountable.
  • It’s hard to become number one but it’s harder to stay number one. You have to be willing to put the work in.

Don’t forget to visit the RSPA Solution Center – a web platform designed to connect VARs and ISVs to providers of innovative solutions

Jim Roddy is the President and CEO of the Retail Solutions Providers Association (RSPA). He has been active in the retail IT channel since 1998, including 11 years as the President of Business Solutions Magazine, six years as an RSPA board member, one term as RSPA Chairman of the Board, and several years as a business coach for VARs, ISVs, and MSPs. Jim has been recognized as one of the world’s Top Retail Influencers by RETHINK Retail, a Leading CannaTech Influencer by The CannaTech Group, and is regularly requested to speak at industry conferences on SMB best practices. He is author of two books – The Walk-On Method To Career & Business Success and Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer – and is host of the award-winning RSPA Trusted Advisor podcast. For more information, contact