In a 2018 survey of retailers by CDW, 4 out of 10 respondents said they were already using artificial intelligence solutions, and close to another 3 out of 10 planned to do so within the next year.

According to the 2019 follow-up survey, these retailers were true to their word, with nearly two-thirds saying they had AI in use. And another quarter said they planned to adopt AI solutions over the next year. This suggests that practically the entire retail industry may be using AI by the end of 2020.

And yet, AI is still in its infancy in most deployments, with many retailers uncertain about exactly how the technology can improve their businesses. I liken the situation to that of mobile apps a decade ago, or e-commerce two decades ago. Retail leaders know that AI is likely to upend their industry, but they’re not quite sure how.

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That’s why I’m looking forward to a number of AI-focused sessions at this year’s annual convention of the National Retail Federation, also known as NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show. AI will be a key focus of CDW’s session at the event, titled “The Next Wave of Digital Disruption in Retail and Hospitality,” as well as of a special “Bring IT On” booth session and the following panels and workshops:

“Space Planning for Today’s Retail — How AI, Cloud and Mobile Are Changing the Game”

Space planning is a fascinating topic, but many stores’ layouts and product placements today are governed largely by existing agreements with major brands that pay for premium placement. I’ll be extremely interested to hear whether AI has the potential to generate enough revenue for stores to disrupt this dominant model.

“AI/ML at Work — Make Retail Seamless”

This session will feature stories from leaders at IKEA Food, Loblaw and Save-A-Lot on how they have used AI and machine learning to better manage supply chains, improve inventory systems, reduce waste, drive profits and deliver a seamless customer experience. I’m excited to see which solutions and processes these retailers have used to yield improvements across the enterprise.

“The Age of AI: Women Shaping the Future of Retail”

“Today, women are vastly underrepresented in the tech industry,” notes NRF’s description of this panel. “If AI is the future and the future is feminine, then we need more women calling the shots.” Indeed, several studies have shown that AI solutions tend to replicate the biases (implicit or otherwise) of their creators, and this should be a fascinating conversation about how tools that are disproportionately developed by men can serve stores’ diverse customer bases. (I’m especially interested in this session, as this is an issue close to my heart. Part of the reason I was drawn to CDW was because of the number of female leaders within the company.)

“How Can AI-Based Video Analytics Improve the Customer Experience?”

Video tools that incorporate AI have huge potential, but I’m interested to hear about the most realistic and valuable near-term use cases, as well as how these solutions will protect the privacy of shoppers.

“Learn How AI Is Transforming Network Operations for Retailers”

It seems that the IT network is more important to driving retail success every year. Although customer-facing solutions tend to generate the most buzz, this should be an informative and valuable workshop.

“Going from Hype to Hyper-Performance with AI Demand Forecasting”

This panel promises real-world case studies about AI driving double-digit improvements in forecast accuracy, as well as a roadmap to help other retailers achieve similar success. At times, we tend to speak about retail as though the sector is a monolith, but of course the industry includes channels as varied as big-box stores, quick-lube mechanic shops, mall jewelry kiosks and hospitality-centered companies. So, I’m especially excited to hear about how these use cases might cut across different retail contexts.

With all these opportunities to catch a glimpse of the future of retail and where AI fits in, it looks to be an exciting NRF convention. CDW will be there (look for us in booth #3663), and I hope to see you there as well.

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