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A big moment for retail: At NRF, marrying physical and digital shopping like never before

January 13, 2023
Matt A.V. Chaban

Senior Editor, Transform

Looking into the future of retail — including AI that can help see what's on store shelves.

It’s a big time for the Big Show.

This could hardly be a more pivotal moment for the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York. The last full-on meeting of NRF in NYC was in January 2020, weeks after COVID-19 began sweeping the world, yet weeks before it would come to a screeching halt — shuttering many of the stores represented on the floor of the Javits Center.

Even before the pandemic, people had been talking for years about a “retail apocalypse.” And yet here we are, in many ways strengthened and focused by the adversity. Many companies have created new ways of working and have embraced new technologies to serve their customers in new channels. Together, they have forged a new vision for retail, one that marries our strengths in digital and in-person shopping and infuses a sense of innovation for the long runway ahead, no matter any uncertainties around the corner. After the past few years, retail seems ready for anything.

It’s exactly what we’re expecting on the floor at NRF, and so we sat down with Carrie Tharp, vice-president for retail at Google Cloud and former chief digital & marketing officer at Nieman Marcus, to get her perspective on what will be big at this year’s Big Show.

It must be great to be back at NRF in person — retail is still such a physical, experiential, in-person thing. Being at the Javits Center feels like the perfect culmination of coming back from the ups and downs of the past few years.

It's really true. For all the challenges we faced, many retailers have made so many great advancements. When the pandemic first hit, that immediate pivot was to digital commerce, to making those experiences as good as possible. In our technology roadmap, we continue to focus on that — we have advancements in discovery helping with things like search, browse, and recommendations, to ensure a retailer’s digital experience is as good as possible. It should be infused with personalisation and powered by AI. 

But what's been really interesting is to understand the comeback of the store, and how we’re able to bring digital technologies into the store like never before.

The retail landscape in-store continues to evolve and the pandemic accelerated that change. Some of those include new shopping behaviors, where traditional shoppers now compete in the store with gig-economy and e-commerce shoppers. This leads to on-shelf availability and restocking challenges. It’s why one of our biggest announcements at NRF will be new tools to help store associates and managers keep their store shelves in good health.

As a team, we’ve really been focused on helping our customers blend physical and digital moments into one seamless, joyous experience. We’ve done so much, and yet still have so much left to do.

Can you tell us more about what’s in store at NRF — and in a store near you soon?

As I mentioned, the most novel announcement, at least when it comes to the marriage of digital and physical, is our new shelf-checking solution. Using Google’s vision AI capabilities, like Google Lens and product recognition, we’ve created a tool that lets retailers use handheld or stationary devices to effectively see what’s on the shelves from anywhere. This can help with inventory, logistics, store appearance, and compensating for the labor shortages that have become so common. Best of all, it frees up store associates to focus on customers.

The next one is about recreating the ease and fun of shopping in-store and bringing that joy to digital, where it’s still kind of missing. With that in mind, we’re launching new AI-powered browsing capabilities, which are designed to use Google’s experience in personalization and discovery to really bring that delightful, serendipitous shopping experience to life in any retail venue, whether online or in-store, or even in between. This is the next evolution in site search, helping retailers master what products customers are actually looking for, with a mix of anticipation and surprise. 

We’re also further enhancing our retail search products with new AI features that can study customer behavior, including their clicks and their cart, their shopping history and loyalty programs, to gain deeper insights into a customer’s tastes and preferences. This can help deliver a unique shopping experience to every customer, and the data could even inform future buying decisions or product development.

Finally, we’re launching page-level recommendation engines that can optimize details like the modules and other features of a website or online shop. Think of it as real-time user-experience development and research at a fraction of the cost of traditional UX.

That’s some lineup.

And that’s not even the most exciting part. What you see in all of these advancements is that we’re really bringing the power of all of Google, not just Google Cloud, to retailers. 


We’re marrying all our offerings, like infusing our Lens technology in the shelf-checking AI and maybe eventually self-checkout. Our search and discovery experiences are derived from expertise building Google Search. Maps is supporting everything from routing deliveries to ensuring accurate addresses at checkout. There’s now environments where retailers can combine their ads data with other data sources to improve personalization and ultimately conversions and customer loyalty.

And it’s not just all of Google showing up, there’s dozens of partners joining you at NRF, right? Why are these partnerships so increasingly important?

It’s really about serving our customers, and their customers, at whatever time and scale they need. The value of a large partner ecosystem is that we’re able to provide more options for our customers. Not everyone wants to adopt full-scale Google technologies and spend years building a custom solution. Oftentimes, they’re looking for partners who can offer them specific solutions, whether that’s making added enhancements to their shelf-stocking AI, redesigning an augmented-reality-shopping environment, or optimizing delivery tracking.

The other big benefit to these partnerships, on all sides, it’s really about our approach. Many retailers, they’re somewhere on their cloud journey already, and we don’t want them to think they have to replace everything just to tap into our innovations. The technology stack of the future really has to be open and agile — just like shopping, it’s going to be a hybrid — so we’re really all about “enhance and expand,” not “rip and replace.” And our partners are a key part of enabling that plug-and-play approach. Many have offerings directly available in our marketplace.

New shelf-checking AI can recognize billions of products, even as they are purchased or moved.

Is there something different about this moment, then? It’s not just the later stages of the pandemic and returning to some semblance of a hybridized normalcy that’s making now feel special?

This really is an inflection point, a lot of this was not possible a few years ago. Part of that is retailers' willingness, and the necessity, to innovate and experiment. It’s also just that the technology has matured so quickly, with these big advances that have been made in cloud and AI. As we like to say on my team: Retail is hard, AI is here.

A lot of these solutions used to be novel, customized, expensive to implement. Now, they’re readily available and can deliver a fast time-to-value.

We have the tagline in our booth at NRF, “Let’s meet tomorrow, together.” I really believe in that sentiment. I think about getting ready to come to the show, or any of my many business trips. I’m a mom, I’m busy, like most of us are. It’s so good to know that if I quickly needed to buy something for the trip, or for my family, I could easily figure out online if it was available in-store, I could run and grab it, schedule a pick-up, or choose to have it delivered. 

We’re already taking these options for granted, but just a few years ago they weren’t widely available. It’s worth acknowledging how better access to data and AI is helping retailers improve experiences in big and small ways.

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