NRF Innovation Lab – Emerging Companies Solving Retailer’s Biggest Challenges

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The Innovation Lab made its NRF “Big Show” debut in 2017, and has become a highly anticipated … [+] feature of the show.

Sanford Stein

Like many other retail industry insiders attending the National Retail Federation’s 2023 “Big Show” on January 15th marked my first time back since pre-pandemic days. This year’s massive visitor turnout and upbeat aura felt celebrational, and for many attendees it was. While I’m a veteran of over three decades of NRF’s Big Show, the Innovation Lab, which made its NRF debut in 2017 has become a must-see for me and many others.

The Innovation Lab is an invitation only venue showcasing some of the world’s newest technology companies, ranging from small emerging start-ups, to known tech innovators. It exists in stark contrast to the over-the-top trade show presentations by huge, multinational technology companies.

This year’s presenters grappled with many of retailing’s challenges employing the latest in artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, blockchain, robotics and the Internet of Things. I participated in a press-tour that included a cross-section of the over fifty carefully curated companies. Here is a highlight four that I felt fulfill an unmet need and appear to be gaining traction.


Pactum bills itself as an autonomous negotiation provider for $5 billion-plus revenue companies. They automate the entire bid-to-contract process, right from initial sourcing through to a fully signed agreement.

Pactum found a significant void in high volume, low value-tail spend contracts that often go unnegotiated because of the volume they represent. For major companies like Walmart
, it is impossible to manage these deals effectively and efficiently. This is why so much value gets left on the table and why so many suppliers go unmanaged.

Pactum’s software integrates with all procurement suites, meaning companies can run a sourcing event through existing software, while Pactum conducts parallel negotiations with a company’s chosen vendors. They use game theory and negotiation best practice to drive a competitive process that delivers value for all parties.

I spoke with Pactum’s marketing and communication’s head Adnan Dawood, who explained that Walmart began exploring the possibility of automating procurement negotiations for tail-end suppliers and reached out to Pactum AI in 2019. Walmart Canada piloted the solution in January 2021 and used supplier feedback to hone the system. Internal buyers selected the suppliers to target and created training scenarios for Pactum AI’s machine learning algorithm.

Walmart International invited around one hundred tail-end suppliers to try the solution, and eighty-nine agreed to participate. The chatbot was successful in reaching an agreement with 64% of them — well above the 20% target — and with an average negotiation turnaround of 11 days. Walmart gained, on average, 1.5% in savings on the spend negotiated and an extension of payment terms to an average of 35 days.


Shiftsmart connects companies with skilled workers to increase fulfillment, reduce turnover, and improve quality. The platform utilizes a network of employees and companies to find, source, and book work. Founded in 2015, it was built to empower today’s workers by helping them maximize income opportunities through increased flexibility and choice, while providing employers with the ability to tap into a larger pool of qualified workers across their core labor operations.

The New York based fintech has already raised $100 million in funding and appeared in Deloitte’s 2022 Technology Fast 500 rankings with 612% growth in 2022. Tom Pecsok, Shiftsmart’s Senior Director, Customer Success explained “by creating a marketplace that provides dynamic solutions for both workers and companies, Shiftsmart is building resilient networks of people and entrepreneurs that power their communities, amplify opportunities, increase productivity, reduce poverty, and lower income volatility.”

Shiftsmart operates in a number of industries across global audits and inspections, flexible contact centers, logistics and onsite staffing for retailers. The company has staffed millions of skilled shifts in more than 50 countries and works exclusively with large customers and government organizations. The company has built trusted relationships with a number of global brands including Circle K, Google
, Sam’s Club, Deloitte, Topgolf, FEMA and the Small Business Administration.

Max Retail

The stories of unsold merchandise have been as prevalent as those of inflation this past year. However, the problem has existed for niche and indie retailers long before it grabbed recent headlines. This drove Melodie van der Baan to launch Max Retail, building a community to optimize inventory between online and offline retailers, while helping retailers sell excess goods at greater than “give-away” prices.

Melodie explained that she spent years as a distributor selling contemporary brands to independent retailers before becoming one herself. She previously owned a boutique in South Florida for nearly a decade, which gave her personal insights into the problem.

In the past unsold merchandise got marked down, often severely until it sold. For many small operators, it was because of the retailer’s limited existing audience. Max Retail created a platform to optimize unsold inventory. It connects unsold merchandise to a network of online and offline retailers. They cover shipping, credit card processing fees, and customer service. Their sweet spot is independent retailers with 30-60 brands; Max Retail has become a supplier of about 3,000 brands.


The fast-growing gig economy was the focus of several of this year’s innovators. GoShare connects customers with delivery professionals to solve last-mile delivery, middle-mile logistics, and moving services.

With a focus on independent haulers, GoShare has a nationwide network of more than 15,000 box trucks, cargo vans, pickup trucks, and sedans for on-demand service via mobile app, through website, or through API integration. Shippers get a free estimate before booking. All drivers receive background checks and vehicle inspections to ensure reliability and safety. GoShare’s operations are currently concentrated in 16 U.S. metro areas, and have built relationships with companies like Costco, Tesla, Sherwin-Williams, Cummins, and Pepsi.

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