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5 Ones to Watch: Industry disrupters that stood out at NRF

By Jackie Mallon


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The main expo floor of NRF Retail's Big Show 2023 Photo by Jason Dixson

The NRF 2023, Retail’s Big Show, which enjoyed pre-pandemic attendance figures is over for another year. The out-of-towners have all flown home, the Javits Center is emptied of booths and exhibitors, and those reporting on the latest innovations are examining their notes and asking themselves, What stood out?

From over 1000 exhibitors FashionUnited has pulled 5, mostly start-ups or businesses early in their existence, which impressed despite not having the high-profile name recognition of a Samsung or a Google, whose products seemed to address a genuine need in the industry, and whose founders shared their passion with every visitor to their booths.

Three of our picks were from the Innovation Lab, a group of 50+ companies likely to impact the future of retail selected by NRF via a rigorous process; only one of our picks was an exhibitor on the main floor; and the last one was selected from the Consumer Product Showcase an assembly of 50 brands that were predominantly minority, women or veteran-owned small businesses. From warehousing logistics to staff management to wall calendars, we have you covered.


Founded in 2019 and aiming to bring life back into waining online retail Bitreel’s meta-commerce platform empowers retailers to create original high-fidelity, photo-realistic immersive stores with no detail left out. Designs are not based on any existing physical stores but created entirely for the online experience using multi-player games engine technology. The platform is ideal for what founder Cosmo Kramer calls “considered products,” luxury high-value goods that have proven difficult to sell online and which traditionally have depended on a one-to-one personalized service experience.

Pio Cube automated warehousing technology Pio.com


Out of Norway Pio exhibited on the main floor its automated warehousing technology, newly available in North America, that is designed to level the playing field for small and medium sized businesses allowing them to keep their warehousing inhouse. The robotic facility eliminates labor costs associated with replenishment, as well as the expensive storage footprint, the inevitable problems in locating and retrieval of items and the transport of cargo. “Pio is different because it aims to empower the little guy,” PR Communications Director, Patrik Wallgren told FashionUnited. Retailers pay a fee per individual item picked; robots, ports, and software are owned and maintained by Pio. Users need only purchase product bins and the grid-like frame that the robots run along. Boasting 4x more effective space utilization and up to 5x faster picking and packing operations, Pio is modular and scalable and runs on standard plug-and-play software that connects to the most common online retail and shipping platforms.


Co-Founder and CEO Martin Rand refers to his California-based company’s AI technology that negotiates with big brands such as client Walmart as “a counter-inflationary force” for how it can unlock hidden value and increase profit margins in these times of looming recession. AI-powered software analyses a company’s processes, everything from freight payment to merchandising terms, sifting through data to locate opportunity. Rand says theirs is the only player in the AI space that is negotiating deals without any human participation and that “Autonomous negotiation” as a term didn’t exist before Pactum.


A labor solution for retailers at a time when staffing shortages are at crisis point, Shiftsmart which already works with Levis and The Real Real is a platform built for the modern hourly worker. Fractionalizing shifts to suit staff’s need for flexibility helps retention, and the platform already works with over 2 million workers and 15,000 retail locations. It offers end-to-end workforce management, instant payment, and provides incentives for highly rated workers, and early access to prime shifts ensuring that the workers’ earnings remain the same while their working hours are broken up to suit their needs.

Elegantly designed paper products made from stone by Folkus.com


After all this algorithm technology we end on an analogue note with start-up company Folkus founded by Tamecca Seril. Exhibiting in the NRF’s Consumer Product Showcase, Seril presented an intriguing sustainable offering of paper products made from stone, manufactured without trees, water or bleach. The limestone-derived paper looks and feels just like paper from wood pulp, it cuts smoothly, and is resistant to water, grease and rips. The Folkus range of journals, gift wraps, maps, notebooks, planners, calendars feature elegant decorative covers celebrating Black culture.