NRF Innovation Lab – The startups solving retail’s biggest challenges

Like many other retail industry insiders who attended the 2023 National Retail Federation “Grand Show” on Jan. 15y It was my first time back since the pre-pandemic days. This year’s huge visitor turnout and upbeat aura felt festive, and it was for many of the attendees. While I am a veteran of more than three decades of NRF’s Big Show, the Innovation Lab, which debuted at NRF in 2017, has become a must-see for me and many others.

The Innovation Lab is an invitation-only venue for showcasing some of the world’s newest technology companies, from emerging small startups to well-known tech innovators. It exists in stark contrast to the massive trade show presentations by mega multinational tech companies.

This year presenters faced several retail challenges using the latest technologies of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Blockchain, Robotics and Internet of Things. I took part in a press tour that included a cross-section of more than fifty carefully curated companies. Here are the top four things I felt met an unmet need that seemed to be gaining momentum.


Bactome Billing as an independent negotiation provider to companies with over $5 billion in revenue. They automate the entire bid-to-contracting process, from the initial supply through to the fully signed agreement.

Pactum found a huge void in High volume, low value spending contracts which are often not negotiated due to the volume they represent. For big companies like Wal-Mart
It is impossible to manage these deals effectively and efficiently. This is why so much value is left on the table and why so many suppliers are not managed.

Pactum software integrates with all procurement groups, meaning companies can run a sourcing event through existing software, while Pactum conducts parallel negotiations with company-selected vendors. They use game theory and negotiation best practices to drive a competitive process that delivers value to all parties.

I spoke with Pactum’s head of marketing and communications, Adnan Daoud, who explained that Walmart had begun exploring the possibility of automating purchasing negotiations for end-suppliers and reached out to Pactum AI in 2019. Walmart Canada has piloted the solution in January 2021 and used supplier feedback to refine the system. Internal buyers selected suppliers to target and created training scenarios for them Machine learning algorithm from Pactum AI.

Walmart International invited about a hundred downstream suppliers to pilot the solution, and eighty-nine agreed to participate. The chatbot succeeded in reaching an agreement with 64% of them—well above the 20% target—and with an average negotiation turnaround time of 11 days. Wal-Mart earned, on average, 1.5% in savings on negotiated spending and payment terms extended by an average of 35 days.

Smart conversions

shiftsmart Connects companies with skilled workers to increase fulfillment, reduce turnover, and improve quality. The platform uses a network of employees and companies to find, source and book business. 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 the ability to tap into a larger pool of qualified workers across their core work operations.

The New York-based fintech company has raised $100 million in funding and has appeared on… Deloitte’s 2022 Technology Fast 500 Ratings at a growth rate of 612% in 2022. Tom Pecksock, Senior Director, Shiftsmart, Customer Success Explained: “By creating a marketplace that provides dynamic solutions for both workers and businesses, Shiftsmart builds resilient networks of people and entrepreneurs who support their communities, amplify opportunities, increase productivity, reduce poverty, and reduce income fluctuations.”

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

Max Retail

Stories of unsold goods were as prevalent as last year’s inflation stories. However, the problem has been around for specialty and independent retailers long before it made recent headlines. This prompted Melody van der Pan to launch Max Retailbuilding A community to improve inventory between online and offline retailers, while helping retailers sell excess merchandise at above “donate” prices.

Melody explains that she spent years as a distributor selling contemporary brands to independent retailers before becoming her own. She previously owned a store in South Florida for nearly a decade, giving her personal insight to the problem.

In the past, unsold merchandise would be marked at the bottom, often so aggressively that they would be sold. For many smaller operators, this was because the existing retailer audience was limited. Max Retail has created a platform to optimize unsold inventory. Connects unsold goods to a network of online and offline retailers. They cover shipping, credit card processing fees, and customer service. Their sweet shop is independent retailers with 30-60 brands; Max Retail has become a supplier of around 3,000 brands.


The fast-growing gig economy was the focus of many innovators this year. GoShare Connects customers with delivery professionals to solve last-mile delivery, middle-mile logistics, and transportation services.

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

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