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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s