Responsive retail offers you the promise that you’ll never run out of milk again. Your internet-connected household devices can help remind you what you need, or just go ahead and order it for you. And with moves afoot for retailers to deliver your groceries right to your fridge it’s quite possible that you won’t even need to get involved at all.
The result is that buying could become much more integrated into our lives, perhaps less of a considered, conscious activity. That may sound alarming but it’s a scenario many stressed-out parents might prefer if it means never running out of nappies again. Ceding control to AI could help our households to run more smoothly.
But AI is going to be more impactful on retail than just making sure you don’t run out of milk. Machine intelligence and associated technologies are having an impact across all functions of the industry, and the pace of this impact is only going to increase. From personalising a customer’s brand experience to managing logistics; every part of the process will be touched by AI’s guiding hand.
Managing consumer interactions
Gartner predicts that by 2020, less than two years away, the majority of consumer interactions with business will be done without humans. Chatbots are already managing our interactions with major companies, and it’s quite possible that our own role as consumers will also be managed by our own machine agents, whether it’s our connected fridge or a device like Alexa that manages our grocery buying.
AI promises to revolutionise the way brands interact with customers, reducing the costs of managing customer service and offering a chance for a real enrichment of the brand experience. Personalisation is likely to intensify as the costs of doing so at scale become more manageable.
That’s going to change consumer expectations for the degree of personalisation they receive from their brand exposure which will put additional pressure on brands to craft exceptional experiences for their audiences, delivered via new technologies.
There are also some highly space-age developments afoot to try to employ technology that can understand and interpret human facial emotions. In Japan, robots are being used in-store that can interact with customers and apparently understand their emotional states.
So far it’s been a mere gimmick that’s brought people into stores for the novelty; long-term there may be opportunities for brands to use this technology to approach customers in tailored ways.
Machine intelligence and learning is also being employed to guide offline retail. AI’s being used to better plan store layouts and make better merchandising decisions.
AI has the ability to introduce more speed into the process of refining a layout, and bring the offline and online experience closer together. By understanding which products customers are searching for and buying online, AI can advise store managers of the items to bring to customer attention in-store.
Using technology to get ahead
With the retail industry already operating on razor-like margins, AI implementation is essentially an arms race to improve efficiencies in measures such as quality and speed. Retailers that can successfully integrate machine intelligence and robot operations may be able to battle ahead of the competition.
Last year, Forbes detailed how production capacity can be increased up to 20% by improving the data flow to both sides of the supply chain. More importantly, for the fashion industry, in particular, AI efficiency gains could mean that turnarounds can be executed more rapidly.
Business intelligence, such as which items of clothing are selling particularly well, can be fed back into the supply chain much faster than human buyers can identify and respond to trends.
This could allow fashion retailers to meet customer demand more efficiently with the aim of never running out of best-selling items or overstocking unpopular lines. Cognitive learning can help predict disruptions to the supply chain using data from sources as varied as weather reports and social media posts.
READ MORE: How Real Businesses Are Using AI Right Now
Properly applied, artificial intelligence holds the potential to help improve retail efficiencies. But it’ll be a tough and costly battle to implement the changes businesses need, both technologically and structurally. A big skills shortage in AI-related roles is just one of the problems retailers and manufacturers face. That’s something that retailers will need to tackle if they hope to take advantage of these new technologies.
AI looks set to have a highly disruptive effect on the retail landscape, helping to define the winners and losers in a brutally competitive market.
We’ve already seen how failure to invest in new digital technologies has contributed to the failure of established players such as House of Fraser. With major brands now investing heavily into AI, it’s likely that the gap between those who thrive and those who fail will widen even further.