I might have missed the National Retail Federation event, NRF ’24: Retail’s Big Show, in New York altogether if it had not been for a public relations person who noticed some of my work writing about artificial intelligence (AI). She asked if I was attending and suggested I speak with the founder of PhotoRoom, an AI-based graphics program. With days to spare, I was able to secure a press pass and show up at the Javits Center on Jan. 15.
It had been many years since I saw the convention center this busy. The two main floors were using every inch of booth space. The first floor tended to be the startups and newer companies in the business. The upper floor held the big players: Microsoft, HP, and Amazon. The booth for Google looked like an epic movie set:
I made PhotoRoom my first stop. I introduced myself to a young man named Justyn, and he set up an appointment for a half hour later with the company founder. I walked around the first-floor convention area for a spell to get a sense of the culture there. It turned out to be overwhelmingly technology-based. Many of the vendors displayed AI in their logos. Everything looked flashy, but there was none of the silliness that you’d see at a book trade show or a library conference. No Elvis impersonators or giant animal figures. Just business.
At my appointment time, Matthieu Rouif, the co-founder and CEO of PhotoRoom, was waiting to talk to me. Rouif is French and works out of Paris, but he was educated at Stanford University, which continues to be a hub for innovation. He asked, “How shall we begin?” I told him, “Show me what your product does.” In a brief walkthrough, he demonstrated how you can begin with a photograph of a person or product and strip out everything but the central object. Then you can manipulate the background, adding an ocean scene or a snowy landscape. If needed, there are a variety of options to add shadows to the subject. His example was a bottle of liquor, which can show up in a snow scene, in a kitchen, or next to a fireplace.
“How much does this cost?” I asked him, since I was quietly adding it to my arsenal of graphic tools. “It’s free,” he said—just download the app in the Google Play or Apple stores. He mentioned that PhotoRoom can take on really large jobs for companies, but it’s mainly a tool for individuals. This individual could not wait to try it out after the final day of the conference.
When I sat down to investigate, I had no trouble finding the popular app in my phone’s store. I could not locate the free version, but I was more than happy to get the 7-day free trial and purchase the pro version for $89.99 a year. (There’s also a weekly plan for $4.99 a week.) I began by working with a few photos from my phone and easily created images, such as this one:
While there is a substantial library of backgrounds, I found that I could also use the program on my desktop computer, allowing me to use landscape shots of my own as backgrounds. With 20,000-plus images in my Flickr account, the possibilities seemed endless. On a snowy January day in New York, I dreamed of being in the Killarney Forest in springtime, and a few minutes of work produced an image to make that happen. On the whole, I can imagine how this tool could put hordes of graphic designers out of work.
The Javits Center has five enclosed stage areas—three on the first floor and two on the second. I attended as many of the events in these locations as I could, as there was a steady stream of AI-related presentations. After four of them, I had a pretty good picture of the state of things. According to the speakers, last year AI was “a thing.” In 2024, it was “the thing.” I expected these presentations to be focused on topics such as inventory control and security. Instead, they were overwhelmingly talking about the customer experience in online shopping.
Karen Etzkorn, CIO of the Qurate Retail Group (best known as the producer of QVC and the Home Shopping Network), said that she is at work on a 3-to-5-year plan for AI and that she constantly monitors the return on investment that AI brings to the company. In the same presentation, Kelly Fladger, SVP and chief human resources officer of Haverty Furniture, said that he constantly works to mix AI into his operation in a humane way. Employees can start to feel that they are being left behind in technology, so constant training is a priority. He said that AI was responsible for 17% of 2023 holiday sales nationally, as it makes searching more fun and relevant.
One of the panelists at a session said something that made my ears perk up: “Customers will need to get used to the fact that the days of controlled language are over. Thanks to AI, they can just enter a search using their normal language and get useful results.” That made me flash back to the early 1990s, when I was at a library event at Columbia University. One of the Columbia librarians told me that students deserve to get bad search results because they will not learn the intricacies of the Library of Congress subject headings. This is the attitude I worked against in my entire 3 decades of being a systems librarian. These subject headings were designed to efficiently work with 3x5 catalog cards.
The Innovation Lab
On Jan. 16, I went to the fifth floor to visit the Innovation Lab. On walking into the area, I saw a hologram of a woman who talked to the visitors. I had to ask someone if she was real, and I was assured that she was, but just not inside the box I was seeing. Further in, there was a robot who mainly waved at people and posed for pictures. The day before, in the food area, I saw a robot that made French fries.
PSYKHE AI, which provides AI products that tap into the psychology of online customers., certainly had the most eye-catching display of the day, with its colorful masks along the bottom of the booth:
Later, I spoke with Arushi Jain, head of marketing at the startup Typeface:
Its AI product is designed to take input from companies and create an entire marketing campaign, including images and press-ready copy. Like so many other AI enterprises, it is headquartered in Palo Alto, California. This is a company to watch, as it just announced that it is partnering with Microsoft. The tech giant added Typeface to its Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Insights platform.
I finished the event at the auditorium in the Javits Center’s north wing. Drew Barrymore was there to talk about her online marketing campaigns:
Martha Stewart spoke about her online marketing campaigns as well. Both of them claim that social media is absolutely vital to their companies. The fun fact of the day was that Martha Stewart does not have an ATM card.
I could tell there would be a big technological component to this conference, but I was surprised at how much there actually was. If someone had a high energy level, they could attend sessions for days on end with nothing but AI content. I predict that next year’s gathering will be something to see.
Photos by Terry Ballard