Innovators Corner: Retail Innovation Conference and Expo

June 18, 2024
Retail Innovation light pole banners

The Society of Innovators at Purdue Northwest partnered with the 2024 Retail Innovation Conference and Expo which took place in Chicago June 4 through 6, 2024. #RICE24 not only provided a front-row seat to the transformative forces reshaping the retail industry but also how business leaders are utilizing new technologies to drive innovation within their organizations.

The event was a rich source of ideas and strategies for staying competitive in retail and other consumer-facing industries. Here are some key takeaways from this year’s event:

Cultural Insights > Demographics

“The center of data-driven decision-making is the consumer. Humans are still the differentiator,” said Angela Gearhart, Executive Practice Director for AAG Consulting. AI technology is foundational for data-driven decision-making, but human understanding remains crucial. Companies should focus on understanding the cultural contexts and societal trends that influence your customer, not just data-driven demographics and behavior reports. Understanding cultural nuances allows for more targeted and effective marketing strategies that resonate deeply with your audience.

Engage Your Customers… In Person

“The ideas get better the closer you get to the customer,” said Andrew Smith, co-founder and managing partner at ThinkUncommon. “Nothing beats that human connection when meeting your customer face to face,” added designer and entrepreneur Rebecca Minkoff. Speakers throughout the event encouraged direct interactions with customers through in-store events, workshops, and face-to-face consultations. These engagements provide valuable insights and strengthen customer relationships.

The Future of Retail Emphasizes Hyper-Relevance and Customization

“AI has moved past personalization to hyper-relevance,” said Mike Munchoff, creative director at ChangeUp. AI tools allow businesses to develop hyper-local strategies that tailor experiences to specific communities and consumers. Retailers are now designing store layouts and product offerings that cater to the specific interests and lifestyles of local communities. The hyper-local approach can increase engagement and sales by making each store more relevant to its unique customer base.

AI is a Foundational Tool

Retail is always changing, and AI is the next accelerant we want to pour on it. While AI has become essential for data-driven decision-making and enhancing the customer, it is just a new tool in the toolbox that needs to be used with clearly defined objectives. Kenzi Inman, Director Global Event Strategy and Development for the NBA explained that they see how cool the technology is, but they still need to develop it into something that can be used to meet consumer needs, desires and demands.

Mattel’s Jordan Walbesser explained that the company has opened an Office of AI to explore how AI can be incorporated into their businesses. Their goal is to educate Mattel personnel and get them excited about AI as a tool for everything from designing to ideation. “We are always seeking out the utility of a new technology,” said Walbesser.

“The biggest mistake is using AI just for the sake of using it,” warned Laylah Funk, Manager Brand Voice and CRM Strategy for Adore Me. Companies need to develop a specific use case for any technologies they might adopt. “Leaders need to at least keep their toes in the water” with new technologies, but need to understand customer adoption and how that technology can drive business outcomes.

Engaging the Digital-First Generation

Many technologies are still “magic” for older consumers, but with an ever-increasing landscape of new technologies at their fingertips, younger consumers just believe that anything is possible if they ask for it. For younger, digitally native consumers, integrating digital experiences with physical retail is crucial. Brands need to ensure that their digital strategies are innovative and engaging to meet the lofty expectations of this audience.

“Technology can’t just be a screen stuck up on the wall,” said James Farnell, retail practice leader at Little. Brands should incorporate in-store technology in a way that enhances the shopping experience without being obtrusive. Examples include virtual try-ons and interactive displays to make shopping more engaging.

Embrace Non-Linear Customer Journeys

The traditional shopping journey is evolving into a non-linear experience where every touchpoint can be a potential sale. Consumer expectations are only accelerated by new technologies and hyper-relevance. Retailers need to create interconnected engagement points across various channels. “Connect everything together. All of this is worthless if you’re not connecting the dots,” said Walbesser. Make it “merchantable” by ensuring that every interaction can lead to a purchase, creating a flexible and responsive customer journey that meets customers where they are.

Companies are increasingly developing interconnected “Human-Digital-Physical” experiences that leverage human interaction, digital tools, and physical spaces to create a cohesive customer journey. This holistic approach can bridge gaps, identify opportunities, and enhance overall customer satisfaction.

Conduct Innovation Audits

Organizations should regularly perform innovation audits to find, understand, and eliminate process friction in a systemic way that is sustainable and effective. What blocks innovation? Some common blockers shared by Andrew Smith include treating innovation as an outcome rather than an organizational competence, built up “grit in the engine” – those little pesky processes and control mechanisms created at a time to stop or slow something deemed to be bad – politics, and an addiction to the short-term. Systematically conducting innovation audits helps accelerate time-to-market for new ideas and gives you a prioritized list of what is slowing down projects and why, which you can then eliminate through adjustments or removal.

UtilizeWeb3 and AI Technologies for Unique Experiences

“Post-COVID, there is a real desire for physical, immersive experience,” said Farnell. Technology-enabled IRL (in real life) experiences are the gateway to consumer engagement. Wow Bao’s Ambrosia March shared how the brand was the first restaurant loyalty program to partner with Roblox, using digital interactions to earn real-world coupons and experiences. The NBA is utilizing NFTs (non-fungible tokens) for fans to secure exclusive VIP access to live events such as NBA All-Star or NBA Con.

From her previous role as Vice President Connected Brand Experience for Sleep Number Corporation, Gearhart emphasized that you need to define specific objectives for your events and engagements. Sleep Number created a content studio at the Super Bowl to build brand awareness and used their Consumer Electronics Show (CES) activations to rebrand to a sleep technology brand.

The Retail Innovation Conference and Expo attracted a diverse crowd of industry professionals, thought leaders, and innovators eager to explore the trends and technologies that are redefining consumer engagement and business strategies. The event was a valuable opportunity to make new connections, exchange ideas, and explore innovative solutions that promise to reshape the retail industry and beyond.

For more information about future events, you can visit