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Posted By:  ECT News Network on 01/09/2020 in Artificial Intelligence

Get Ready to Shop With Robots

Get Ready to Shop With Robots

By Gautam Goswami 

Automation services are disrupting the traditional retail experience.  They range from tablets for self- checkout to more complicated technologies -- like the robot Lowe's is testing that can interact with customers in stores and help them find the items they need. 

"I don't think it is going to happen next year or the year after, but I do believe that probably by the mid '20s to the late '20s, you'll start to see a dramatic change in how machines run the world," Greg Creed, CEO of Yum! Brands, told CNBC.  Yum! owns a handful of fast-food companies, including KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

According to McKinsey and Company, automation is going to reshape retail business models as well as every link in the entire value chain, creating organizations with fewer layers and a better trained workforce, empowered by real-time data and analytics. Winners in the sector will be those who understand these implications and act quickly to address them. Losers, well… that's why they have liquidation sales.

Of course, automation doesn't just take a single form.  It includes vending machines; service kiosks that allow customers to look up their preferred items; self-checkout systems; retail phone apps; and even retail operations that automate functions such as inventory.  

Move Over, Humans

Much of that automation derives from the online shopping world.  There, automated merchandising software is used to track consumer behavior and combine it with the individual's Web search history to predict their purchasing behavior and respond with shopping suggestions.

Retail apps go a step further, integrating the in-store and e-commerce channels so that customers can order colors and sizes of merchandise that aren't available in the store. Some of these apps can also interact with in-store items and displays. Others allow customers to seamlessly integrate their online and in-store experience by adding things to an e-commerce cart while they're still in the store.

Leading merchandisers already use all of these technologies.  But a study by Futurum Research sponsored by SAS, looks ahead another 10 years, by which time, technology will have entirely upended the way brands and consumers engage.  Their research anticipates that smart machines will largely replace humans, handling roughly two-thirds of customers' engagement and purchase decisions made at that time. 

Companies will have to balance providing human-like experiences, on the one hand, with the immediate results that consumers will have come to expect, on the other.  Data, analytics, machine learning and AI will enable machines to deliver this balance in ways that satisfy customers and deliver increased efficiencies to the enterprise, the study concludes.

Some of these machines will be remarkably smart.  According to the study, 62 percent of brands anticipate investing in voice-based AI assistants to improve customer engagement and support.  Another 58 percent are investing in voice-based AI.  And 54 percent are investing in augmented and virtual reality technologies to help consumers visualize the look or use of a product remotely, supported in most cases by holographic technology for in-store advertising, interactive gaming and public events. 

Main Street at Night

Soon, shoppers walking past store windows will be able to get information about the clothes on mannequins through their smartphones.  That involves a technology already used in certain public spaces, like museums and art galleries, to convey information about historical artifacts.  The system operates 24 hours a day, allowing main street retailers to engage with customers even when the outlet is closed, with the shop window becoming an interactive selling point.

Already, buyers of home furnishings can use their tablet to see the way a room in their home would look with their choice of carpet or flooring in place.  Similar technology for trying on clothing in a customer's virtual world couldn't be far behind.

Other in-store technologies, ranging from cool to downright creepy  -- such as clothing with built-in sensors that allow retailers to track you in return for a discount -- are either under development or already available in prototype form.  Consumer acceptance of these automated experiences will ultimately determine which ones become standard aspects of the customer experience. 

For the surviving retailers, staying connected to the appropriate datasets and management systems will be essential. Already, technologies capable of remotely linking and updating the different components of automated retail are available. One key challenge will be supporting all this technology to keep everything working together, in real time, to create a seamless customer experience.

Over time, the specific assets managed by those technologies -- from shelf space allocation to animatronic mannequins -- will evolve.  But through it all, the retail consumer experience will be unlike any other.

Black Fridays may never be the same.

About the Author
Gautam Goswami is chief marketing officer at TeamViewer.

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