As retailers and brands predict and plan for the way consumers will shop in the future, artificial intelligence (AI) is high on the business development strategy for 2016 and beyond.
Promising significant benefits for both retailers and consumers, AI is already around us and used everyday within shopping and payments. Businesses are embracing the benefits of the technology and progress within AI is accelerating at pace, with big things expected for the near, and distant, future.
Companies in the US, such as shoes.com and stitchfix.com are leading the way with intelligent shopping, with visual filters and virtual personal shoppers, and British companies are expected to follow suit.
2016 looks set to be AI’s biggest year yet, especially within retail customer services. AI can process ‘big data’ far more efficiently than humans and can recognise speech, images, text, patterns of online behaviour – for example to detect fraud – as well as appropriate advertisements for upselling. Smart machines and technology can turn data into customer insights and enhance service provisions, bringing the digital experience closer to the in-store interaction for consumers.
Within retail, intelligent assistance is a rapidly developing area of AI that has the potential to change the consumer experience, as it uses big data combined with natural language interfaces and machine learning to provide human-like interactions. The assistants are quicker than their human counterparts and can analyse vast amounts of data in seconds. In addition, assistants can perform human-like interactions and have a designed personality, reflecting the brand that can provide an entertaining and engaging point of contact for shoppers.
Personalisation is a major talking point for retailers and many are experimenting with innovative ways to match products and services to the consumer. For the shopper, the technology can simplify the shopping process and offer suggestions and recommendations for purchases by matching algorithms. We’ve seen some great examples of brands and retailers testing the technology to help customers find the right item for their needs, such as The North Face and its Expert Personal Shopper software that uses IBM’s Watson technology.
Instore experience merges with online shopping
Retailers are redefining the way customers are experiencing their brand. The retailer of the future will merge in-store and online efforts to provide more information about shoppers, to offer better customer service and create the opportunity to sell more goods. We picture a time when the retailer will know when an online customer walks through the door of their high street store and will have information about items they have reviewed on the website and vice versa, where online retailers will know when a shopper has visited the high street store and can match their product suggestions accordingly.
The robots are coming
For all the jobs AI is alleged to threaten, many roles are being created and will continue to be. Futurologists predict that in five years’ time, 90 per cent of call centres will be replaced by AI and Google’s Rat Kurzweil predicts robots will reach human levels of intelligence by 2029 if they can overcome current limitations. In spite of this, there are hundreds of exciting new roles being created in technology and software development all around the world.
Pepper the Robot is the world’s first humanoid robot with human emotions, developed by Softbank, one of Japan’s biggest telecommunications companies, in collaboration with Paris-based robotics experts, Aldebaran. Pepper is already being used in retail and customer services industries as a replacement to an informational booth. Now, a partnership with IBM means the Watson-powered version offers a service that developers can build into their apps or devices to make them smarter by doing things such as analysing data, making personal recommendations and even understanding human language and emotion. The Watson-powered Pepper will be able to tap into data such as social media, video, images and text with more types of jobs in development.
Robotics are already being used to clean floors, stack shelves, retrieve items in warehouses, package goods and operate forklifts, but Pepper is pushing the boundaries of what an autonomous, artificially intelligent robot can do. We envisage a time when robots will work side-by-side with humans.
Where to next?
Retailers need to pay attention to technological developments such as AI and plan ahead for what is coming and how they will address the changes. The way retail businesses discover and implement innovation is shifting, with the launch of venture teams and accelerator panels or internal ‘incubators’ to bring a start-up mentality to corporate organisations.
The growth of automated services, AI and robotics has heightened the need for retailers, brands and mobile payment providers to work closely with proposition designers, coders, developers and marketers to ensure new concepts are identified, developed and commercialised professionally and effectively.
Gideon Hyde is co-founder and CEO of Market Gravity
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