NRF Reflections

Reflections From Retail’s BIG Show

NRF 2017 – Retail’s BIG Show – took place last week in New York, Andrew Busby went along to learn more about the biggest technology disruptor to impact retail for years to come.


Retail is on the very edge of a complete revolution; technology is driving change never before seen. The scale of this is enormous and the consequences of it far reaching.

Retailers are no longer solely in the business of retail, they must rapidly evolve and reinvent themselves as technology organisations. Why? To find the answer I travelled to New York to attend the National Retail Federation’s annual retail conference – otherwise known as Retail’s BIG Show.

And from the very beginning one thing was clear; retail and technology are now intrinsically interwoven, the huge expectations and demands placed on retailers by tech savvy consumers are driving an era of change which is unprecedented. And right at the heart of this is something which perhaps some of us have never even heard of: cognitive computing.

But what exactly is cognitive computing and how is it any different from computing as we know it today?

IBM describes cognitive computing as ““systems that learn at scale, reason with purpose and interact with humans naturally”. But what does that mean?

“Each and every customer action creates more and more data that offers brands the information they need to deliver outstanding experiences — if they can connect the data points to predict and prescribe a course of action, and do so quickly before the competition can seize the opportunity” IBM


In simple terms, it means that the machine is able to not only interact with and understand natural language (such as human speech) but whilst doing so is constantly learning, to all intents and purposes, learning just like a human. This allows data analytics on an unprecedented level and scale and most importantly means that context is recognised. Computing as we know it today is limited by the pre-programmed functions we have given it.

As opposed to basic artificial intelligence which must be pre-programmed, cognitive computing learns through human interactions.

It is estimated that 80% of all the data created is unstructured eg. weather forecasts, blogs, social media, local news reports etc, meaning that it cannot be processed by normal computing methods. However using cognitive computing this data can be processed and the results continually learnt.

The implications for retail are huge. With the capability to be constantly learning, these systems have the potential to completely revolutionise many aspects of a retail business, from marketing to merchandising from supply chain to online commerce.

For a closer look I spoke to IBM, who through IBM Watson, are at the forefront of this technology.

According to them, “delivering the right customer experience at the right time and place is the new disruptor”. Meaning that retailers must have a deep understanding and insight into each and every one of their customers in order to be able to deliver unparalleled personalisation and customer experience.

Watson, named after IBM’s first CEO Thomas J Watson was established 5 years ago and is able to process the equivalent of a million books every second. This means that these deep insights into consume behaviour and buying patterns are available in almost real-time.

Whilst NRF 2017 had many more exciting technologies on show, from virtual reality and augmented reality to robotics to artificial intelligence, the potential of cognitive computing to be the key to unlocking a level of personalisation never before dreamt of, should have every retailer sitting up and taking notice.


Andrew Busby is founder of Retail Reflections & The Retail Advisory Board and an IBM Futurist


NRF Day 3 roundup

Retail’s BIG Show – Day Three

IBM’s Watson was undoubtedly the star of the show on day 3. Cognitive computing being set to revolutionise the industry.

Retail Analyst Andrew Busby with a roundup from day 3 at Retail’s BIG Show



Whether it was great keynotes, the Innovation Lab, two floors jammed with exhibitors in the Expo halls or the inspiring sessions – the 3rd and final day at NRF had it all.

And the evidence of change was present throughout the show: reinventing retail, rethinking retail, reimagining retail – it was clear that a revolution in the industry is upon us and whilst this can bring fear and uncertainty it also means that this is the most exciting time to be in retail right now.

Much was discussed in many of the keynotes and sessions, the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics is likely to see a great many jobs in retail become redundant to humans. But encouragingly, as has happened throughout history, new jobs – which we have yet to fully determine – will appear as business models evolve, adapt and change to meet the new normal of retailing.

And one thing from the Show was very apparent; data and technology will revolutionise retailers’ and consumers’ lives alike.

“The undeniable star of NRF 2017 was IBM Watson”

The secret to unlocking the potential of all this data lies not in traditional methods however but in something which is going to revolutionise personalisation and customer experience in retail.

There was plenty of technology on display this year from AI to bots to smart mirrors through augmented and virtual reality however the undeniable star of NRF 2017 was IBM Watson, the IBM booth drawing crowds eager to find out what all the buzz was about.

The significance of Watson is not to be underestimated; having the ability to now be able to tap into the huge amount of unstructured data – think weather forecast, social media, news reports, video, images, speech – will transform the industry.

The excitement around this was palpable and whilst the pace of change is hugely challenging for almost every retail business, it also means that the future is incredibly exciting…..for all of us.

As if to underline this, trending number 3 on twitter in New York today? Watson.

Andrew Busby is founder of Retail Reflections & The Retail Advisory Board and an IBM Futurist

NRF Day 2 roundup

Retail’s BIG Show – Day Two

Data data all around but not a drop to……process. Retail Analyst Andrew Busby with a roundup from day 2 of NRF – Retail’s BIG Show.


Much has been written about the need for data to drive insight and ultimately better customer experience and personalisation but never more was it in evidence than here at NRF.

Every way you turned it seemed that data, engagement, personalisation, experience were all staring back from the walls of the Jacob Javits Convention Centre.


Sir Richard Branson opened the day with a ‘fireside chat’ (never worked that one out) and shared his thoughts and sympathies with every retailer in the audience. How that went down I can only wonder but there’s no denying that he has an impressive portfolio and deserved the airtime.

On the Expo floor one stand (booth) stood out head and shoulders above the rest, indeed it seemed at times as if the entire conference had descended upon IBM – and Watson was the star turn. Everyone wanted to know more about how cognitive computing can help their business. And it was easy to see why.

Elsewhere there were gems to be found provided you sought them out and one such was GDR UK CEO Kate Ancketill ironically discussing the impact which artificial intelligence is likely to have on retail, the potential loss of jobs through automation quite shocking.

But with every downside, there’s always an upside and the vision which Kate eloquently articulated should have given hope to every retailer in the room.

New and different jobs will emerge from the fields of automation and like any revolution the future will no doubt be different but not necessarily any worse.

From AR to VR to AI to robotics, to machine learning to cognitive to Watson; day two at NRF had it all. The only question left remaining; if I am a retailer, how do I make sense of all this?


Andrew Busby is founder of Retail Reflections & The Retail Advisory Board and an IBM Futurist

NRF Day 1

I happen to speak English – you may not. Retail Analyst Andrew Busby takes a look at what the 1st day from NRF 2017 had in store.



Much has been written in the lead up to this year’s BIG Show about the impact technology is poised to make on the retail industry and so one of the most eagerly anticipated NRF conferences in years opened today.

Of course, there are many different languages, English being just one of those and which happens to be my native tongue, yours might be different but of one thing I’m absolutely sure, it won’t be the language traditionally used by computers: binary. Bits & bytes 1 or 0; it has been the same for decades and can be traced all the way back to Alan Turing and the Turing machine in the 1940’s.

That is until now.

“Fundamentally, retail has remained unaltered for over 100 years; that, however is all about to change”

The retail industry is on the brink of a revolution, the like of which has never been seen before: ever.

Fundamentally, retail has remained unaltered for over 100 years; that, however is all about to change. The era of artificial intelligence has been upon us for a few years but at NRF 2017 we saw AI on steroids: cognitive computing. And leading the revolution is IBM with its Watson initiative (more of that to come on day 2). So what exactly is cognitive computing?

Put simply, it is a means by which a computer can become an extension of human expertise at huge scale. And that is because cognitive learns – 24×7. Up until now, computers, including those driving current analytics, can only process what they are pre-programmed to do. Not cognitive.

Cognitive learns by having the ability to process (just like you and I) unstructured data such as video, images, articles, news clips, social media etc

So what does all this mean for retail?

Two E’s emerged from the first day at NRF: engagement and experience. Retailers are anxiously seeking both in abundance. Better more intimate engagement with their customers in order to be able to deliver a more immersive experience which will encourage their customers to keep coming back for more.

But without deep understanding of the customer, levels of engagement and customer experience will always remain at an embryonic stage.

Elsewhere at NRF, as expected, robotics, AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) were strongly in evidence but the pattern had been set and underlined by two young forward thinking organisations at the end of the day.

Both Indochino and Shoes of Prey make custom fashion (suits and shoes respectively). Both see offline and online as one and significantly, both see data as the key to driving better personalisation. Really understanding their customers’ lifestyles and preferences, clearly forefront in their plans and in doing so perhaps they are both showing us the model for the future.


Andrew Busby is founder of Retail Reflections & The Retail Advisory Board and an IBM Futurist

NRF2017: The Must See Sessions

Curated by Retail Reflections

If, like us, you find yourself with the festive season and New Year celebrations a rapidly fading memory, you may now be turning your thoughts to NRF 2017 – Retail’s BIG Show. But hang on, there’s so much to see and do, where do I even begin to start planning for the greatest retail show on earth?

Fear not, because here at Retail Reflections we’ve done the legwork for you. Having reviewed all the sessions, we bring you our top picks for 2017, in chronological order so all you have to do is copy and paste!


Sunday 15th

What:   From Data to Delight: An Insight Driven Revolution of the In-Store Experience

Where: 10.15 – North Hall, Level 2

Why:     Leading nicely from the previous and you don’t even have to leave your seat! We’re expecting that data, insight, analytics, predictive will all dominate NRF 2017 and that the shopping experience of the future will be an all-encompassing and wonderful part of our lives. And it starts here.

“We’re expecting that data, insight, analytics, predictive will all dominate NRF 2017”

What:   Prescriptive Analytics, Machine Learning and IoT

Where: 14.00 – EXPO Hall, Room 3, Level 3

Why:     Retail is on the cusp of a revolution the like of which no-one could possibly have predicted and it will revolve around far greater insights into our lives allowing for a level of personalisation and customer experience we could only have dreamt of just a few years ago.


Monday 16th

What:   Undying Brand Engagement: A Fireside Chat With Sir Richard Branson

Where: 09.00 – North Hall, Level 2

Why:     Because keynotes don’t get much better than this


What:   Innovation Lab Quick Fire Presentations: Robotics & AI

Where: 12.25 – River Pavilion, Level 4

Why:     We predict that whilst AR and VR will feature front of house in the next few years, the real game changer will be robotics and AI which will pack a punch right across the retail landscape from call centres to supply chain to in-store experience.


What:   Omnichannel Analytics – Unlocking the Optimal Customer Experience

Where: 16.00 – EXPO Hall, Room 3, Level 3

Why:     Customer experience in all its guises will be the new battleground and in order to unlock the vast potential, big data and analytics will be required.


Tuesday 17th

What:   Trends 2017: Retail Opportunity for the Fast Changing World & the Human Mind

Where: 10.15 – EXPO Hall, EXPO Stage, Level 1

Why:     GDR CEO Kate Ancketill always delivers great insight and will put much of the conference into a wonderful perspective; after all we all need takeaways!


What:   Learning From Leaders of Digital Transformation

Where: 11.30 – EXPO Hall, Room 3, Level 3

Why:     If there’s one topic on everyone’s lips right now, it’s digital transformation. But what exactly does it mean? How do I achieve it? Where do I start? This session will help to answer those questions and more.


Andrew Busby is founder of Retail Reflections & The Retail Advisory Board and an IBM Futurist. He is also a regular contributor to Retail Week and one of the UK’s most influential retail analysts.