I couldn’t help but think of Lower Decks while attending NRF.
Lower Decks is the tongue-in-cheek animated Star Trek show that focuses not on the captain and her bridge crew, but on rather the grunts who do the menial work on, you guessed it, the Lower Decks. One day, those on the lower decks will be bridge-level crew, but until then, they toil in relative anonymity.
That seemed to be the fate of the startups at the base level of the Javits Convention Center. I checked out La French Tech and the Israel Export Institute. One founder complained to me that foot traffic was lighter, with fewer reporters and analysts. One company founder told me she missed the days of being at the NRF Innovation Lab, which showcases the real up-and-coming startups premiering new technology.
Naturally, I had to check it out.
On my way to the Innovation Lab, I took a tour of the upper level, where the biggest companies recreate stores, cafes and checkout lines to illustrate how their technology improves the retail experience. HP, for example, opened up the HPCorner Market, complete with vegetables and fake macarons (I asked). Databricks stole the show by actually bringing puppies to promote its partnership with PetSmart. My personal favorite, Lexmark, rode into the show with a life-size racing horse, bourbon and bourbon-flavored chocolates to highlight its Kentucky heritage.
There were other tricks to stand out, including magicians offering money, vendors dressed as Willy Wonka and staffers aggressively handing out mints. The company that got most of my attention was Shipt, which offered a relaxed place to sit and charge your phone and other peripherals. I was surprised that more companies didn’t offer this.
At the Innovation Lab, Ownit.Ai seemed to attract the most traffic. The company aims to help its clients jump to the top of search with generative AI-written articles. Its pitch to retailers is that it can create at massive scale the FAQ-oriented articles Google prioritizes for SEO.
At that point, I noticed a new player on the show floor: alcohol! Around 4 p.m., attendees started drinking beer and cocktails. Around 5 p.m. people bundled up and headed for restaurants, parties and an unforgiving New York winter.
The next day, a client asked me if he should focus his efforts on NRF or CES. To me, CES is more of a product-oriented show; whereas NRF focuses on retail services. That made me think of my top recommendations:
- Secure space on the upper level, even if the real estate forces you to adopt a smaller booth setup.
- If you do have the resources to take on the big boys and girls, think outside of simply recreating a store, slapping “AI” on every asset you own and simply hogging up space (ahem, Oracle). Databricks’ puppy stunt worked because no one else had live animals. Channel Monty Python and think “And now for something completely different.”
- Compete with booths that feature ready-for-TV settings with research-driven reports that contextualize the entire show; consider a survey that tells the meta-story and places you in the center.
- Target more than just the media and analysts attending the show to ensure you don’t just get exiled to an industry round-up.
- Grab lunch before noon so you can actually sit down while you eat.
- Don’t invest in tchotchkes – no one wants them… unless it’s a charger for your phone.
Consider my suggestions next time you plan for NRF, and soon you’ll be out of the lower decks and seated in the captain’s chair.