How Artificial Intelligence is transforming retail: from backend to front of house

11th July 2017

Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) have been making a big difference to the way that retailers do business – both online and in bricks and mortar stores. Technologies including AR and VR (augmented and virtual reality) are already changing the way that many retailers communicate with and sell to customers. But what does this really mean for retail staff? Will they all be replaced by machines? And would customers really prefer interacting with robots?

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Picking your brains

AI technology is already evident in most online stores, where the software looks at what you have previously purchased and makes recommendations based on your choices. Soon these algorithms will be presenting customers with more nuanced suggestions – for example if someone is browsing trousers it could recommend a belt or shoes to go with them, based on their personal taste. And this tech isn’t just for online transactions. Digital mirrors in store can suggest accessories to go with a particular item – or take the strain out of trying things on altogether – with AR enhancements that can show customers what they would look like in an array of different outfits, at the touch of a screen.

Smarter interactions

And it’s not just the fashion sector that is benefitting from AI. As consumers place more trust in online retailers, they have begun to share more data with them. Retailers then use this data to fine tune the content, context and timing of their customer interactions by spotting patterns and habits in shopping behaviour. The technology is constantly learning, becoming smarter and making better informed, personalised exchanges – and the more that consumers use it, the better the interactions will become as more of their data is fed back into the system.

Visual Search

Have you ever tried searching for an item but weren’t sure how to describe it? Perhaps you’ve tried Google’s image search where you can drag a picture into the search box to find out what it is or to find something similar. Now fashion retailer ASOS are trialling technology for Visual Search where users can search for products using a smartphone photograph of the item that they want. For example if you see someone in the high street wearing a great red jumper but you don’t have the nerve to ask them where they bought it, you can snap it and scan it and see if ASOS have anything similar for you to buy! Visual Search is more specific than using keywords alone – and if it doesn’t return the results that you want you might find something else that you like along the way – where online shopping becomes more like browsing in store.

Rise of the machines

Although many retailers are readily experimenting with AI technology, others are uncertain about how they can apply it in store. There needs to be step-change in the way that both businesses and customers approach the technology. They need to be able to trust a machine to make decisions that have previously been made by a human. Does the computer really know best when it comes to managing your digital marketing or advertising strategy? Can an algorithm really replace a stylist or personal shopper? Will it have the same level of flair or creativity?

Whilst the technology has the capacity to enhance customer experiences by making them quicker, smarter and more personalised – where do we draw the line? Perhaps we need to focus on developing machines that work alongside retail assistants, rather than replacing them Surely consumers still need empathy and understanding – and whilst a machine can simulate this, it can not truly experience it. The fact is, one size does not fit all. Sometimes you might want to shop online or use the self service checkout because you don’t feel like talking to anyone, whilst on a another occasion you would prefer to have some expert advice from an experienced sales assistant – when choosing a bottle of wine, or a suit for a wedding. Technology developers need to acknowledge this by ensuring that the machines do not muscle in where they aren’t wanted, to create a retail environment that is beneficial for all. As always, we’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this subject – perhaps you’ve been replaced by a machine – or you’d prefer to shop with one? Let us know in the comments section below!