In just a few years, artificial intelligence (AI) could transform the retail space beyond recognition — but only if teaching is an integral part of the roll-out strategy.
Living as they are in the digital era, today’s consumers are demanding. They expect retailers to locate themselves where they are — offering everything from a wide range of products to great customer service at the push of the button. Given the prevailing market trends, one might well wonder whether the brick-and-mortar model of the retail industry can ever survive the digital onslaught.
With the arrival of e-commerce giants such as Amazon and the introduction of local online marketplaces, such as Noon, the retail landscape has already been altered irrevocably. In addition, the e-commerce market has received a shot in the arm with Dubai’s ambition to become the smartest city coupled with the UAE’s dedicated AI strategy.
Companies are competing in their efforts to leverage technology to enhance the customer experience. In fact, AI has the potential to boost economic growth in the UAE by 1.6 per cent and add $182 billion to the national economy by 2035, according to a report by Accenture. While we are all aware of the potential of AI and the benefits it brings, how do we utilise these technologies to their full potential?
Garbage in, garbage out
The explosion in connected devices and customer connections is creating huge volumes of digital “exhaust” through generating large amounts of data. Retailers can now analyse buying trends, consumer desires, and patterns of behaviour to make informed decisions and optimise the customer journey. But to harness them effectively, retailers need a new AI system — one that can identify and extract the signals that are meaningful from those that are irrelevant.
However, AI systems are not yet a one-stop-shop solution for successful analytics. Before organisations can extract and exploit insights, they need to teach their system and input high-quality data rudiments as essential fodder to ensure data veracity. Low-quality data means the AI system produces distorted, inaccurate results that risk harming a business — instead of helping it.
Retailers have everything to gain from putting their data sets through rigorous vetting and beta testing processes before they’re deployed.
Start small, and prioritise
Knowing where to roll-out the AI system is also critical to the education process. Ask it to manage multiple disciplines at once, and you lose your focus. The most successful implementers identify a specific business pain-point — it could be customer- or employee-facing — and train an AI system to address it.
Let’s consider the experience of a large hypermarket chain in the region, who introduced online shopping. The retailers noticed a spike in demand for doorstep delivery and created a single digital platform that integrated thousands of products. However, this was not enough as customers wanted integrated channels and services on-the-go.
The retailer then launched in-store kiosks and a mobile application integrating all channels to enhance the customer experience for both offline and online shoppers and offer a unified view of the inventory. Not only did this improve the customer journey, it also optimised the entire supply chain.
Learning on the job
In the not-so-distant-future, retail giants will not excursively be deploying AI systems online. Physical retail stores will also experiment with aisle-roaming robots that learn on the job. These autonomous units will move through stores scanning bar codes to identify misplaced or out-of-stock items.
The AI that drives the robots will learn to become more efficient over time, which means productivity rates are set to climb further.
Create star students
Retailers that commit to training their AI systems for specific tasks gain a competitive edge. And, critically, because the retail sector tends to use several fragmented, disparate systems, it is well-suited for optimisation via fully trained AI tools.
From automating back-office processes to inventory and fulfilment systems and the supply chain, AI has the potential to turn retail on its head.
Just like students without teachers, however, AI systems without any initial instruction lack direction, and for the retail industry deploying such systems will mean not maximising the full potential of AI. Through simply investing the time at the beginning of the AI journey, and giving the systems the right material, including teaching them to identify what is truly valuable, the sector can reap huge dividends.
Norberto Cibien is products operating group lead, Accenture Middle East and Turkey.