Jeremy Duimstra, cofounder and ceo MJD Interactive, and Brandon Avery, creative managing director, FRCH, during a presentation at the Innovation Lab stage at NRF’s Big Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Monday, discussed connecting with consumers on an emotional level.

At the new FRCH Design Worldwide-designed, 37,000-square-foot American Girl flagship that bowed in November at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, customization and personalization are key to the experience. Young visitors to the doll workshop can create a version in their own likeness, choosing from the more than one million options.

Catering to the end consumer, the flagship has a multisensory environment that invites exploration. Displays are positioned at multiple heights so all ages can interact with the merchandise. The doll hair salon was expanded so that girls and their dolls can get matching hairstyles and manicures, and private birthday party rooms were added. 

“We don’t believe that every touch point drives a sale,” Avery said, during a session titled “The Future of Retail: One Size Doesn’t Fit All.” “However, touch points need to be sticky and connected,” he said. “It’s long-term value that you’re adding.

“We found out what little girls really like. This is the next level of tapping into emotion,” Avery said before airing a video of a girl who receives an American Girl doll for a gift. Unwrapping her trophy in front of her wide-eyed younger sister, the girl anxiously removes a piece of cardboard covering the doll’s legs. She bursts into tears, sobbing. Inside the box, is a doll with a prosthetic leg. “She has a leg like me,” the girl sobs to her parents. “She’s just like me. Thank you.”

“You have to start connecting with your audience in an emotional way,” Duimstra said.

He added that technology can help connect with consumers, but it “should be an enabler of people, not a replacement. We’re not here to create a digital store. We created a store that uses digital. It’s not meant to distract from the need of trying to solve a problem. There’s value in tools that help people accomplish things.”

“Your brand promise is more important than the next hot technology,” Avery said. “You need to wrap the technology in your brand promise. Brands come to us and say, ‘We need VR, it’s so cool.’ Focusing on the tech, is not a reason for the tech.” 

AI was one of the technology buzzwords that bubbled up during the convention. Monday’s session, “How AI Is Powering Retail’s Growth,” offered the perspectives of three retailers with different businesses.

“AI has virtually endless applications,” said Deborah Weinswig, managing director, Fung Global Retail and Technology, who introduced the panel. “Why does AI matter to retail? It helped Alibaba achieve $25.3 billion in record sales on Singles’ Day. Its AI platform generated 400 million ads.

“With facial recognition, seamless experiences are created,” Weinswig added. “There’s been very fast adoption of facial recognition in retail and hospitals. AI is essential for robotics. Wal-Mart is using robotics.”

Panel member Chris McCann, chief executive officer of 1-800 Flowers, said the company has managed to stay several steps ahead of the competition. “When we launched the telephone service, it was groundbreaking technology,” McCann said. “It allowed us to disrupt the floral industry in the U.S. We need to be involved in emerging technology early on. We have a culture of innovation and reinvention at the company.”

“We were the first merchant to sell on,” McCann said. “We jumped online in 1991. In 1997, we were out in front of the e-commerce wave, and in the mid-2000s, we saw mobile and social media transform how we live today. Now, we see our fifth phase as conversational commerce.”

McCann said AI voice technology allows the company to re-create a one-to-one relationship with customers at a significant scale. I-800 Flowers launched a fully transactional bot in Facebook Messenger and launched voice on the Amazon Alexa platform. “Voice is the future,” McCann said.

Sylvia Campello, president and chief operating officer of Cosabella, an Italian lingerie brand with design headquarters in Miami, said the company turned a wholesale operation into a direct-to-consumer business. “All of our departments were wholesale-focused. We had to break down the silos,” she said. “Now, we’re using Instagram and Facebook influencers.”

According to Campello, “E-mail automation segments customers into different categories, such as first-time buyers and active customers and sends out micro-targeted e-mails. Innerwear and sleepwear, which is merchandised by tops and bottoms, utilizes visual AI to present the best match to the consumer.”

Ebay’s chief strategy officer, Chris Miller, said AI is impacting how consumers become aware of brands. With 168 million active buyers, 1.1 billion live listings in 190 markets worldwide, Miller said, “We’re in the process of really transforming eBay. We’re using machine learning for search and personalization and to build a more trusted transaction.”

A new feature, Find It on eBay, is an image search that uses pictures instead of words. Shop the Look, promotes exploration by introducing consumers to new brands, while voice shopping, Miller said, “is as simple as talking to a friend. The consumer is telling us they want simpler, more personalized experiences. AI is incredibly powerful for our business.”