Retail

The future of AI in retail is already here

Vaughan Rowsell /

When you think about artificial intelligence and how it will impact our daily life, what are the images you conjure up?

Intelligent robot companions that clean and cook and keep you company? A disembodied voice that controls your car, home, TV and your life? Or are you dark and the image of a robot army coming to retire all humans one at a time is how you imagine AI?

Isn’t it exciting to think about how technology is going to change (or end) our lives?

In its basic form, artificial intelligence is when a computer is able to make ‘intelligent’ decisions that a human would otherwise make. So, lights that automatically turn on when it gets dark is a form of AI. Google maps finding you the fastest route to drive somewhere is a more advanced version of AI, and several levels up from there are self-driving cars that can not only turn on the headlights automatically and plan the fastest route, but also drive you there without killing anyone along the way.

Computers are learning so much about us, and new tricks to pretend to be us. They can listen, talk, give us advice and drive complex machinery. Soon the AI can be with us wherever we go to, like our own personal guardian angel, or virtual life assistant reminding us when to leave home to make it through traffic to our coffee date on time.

As technology becomes more and more portable, so too do we become more and more mobile. As our lives become more automated, as cars drive themselves, as supermarkets predict and deliver the groceries we need, this all frees us up to have more time to do fun things. Like shopping.

But wait, isn’t automation and Amazon killing retail?

I believe the retail industry is set to benefit immensely from technology and AI. Technology and AI could do all our shopping for us; technology and algorithms can find the right sized clothes and automatically pick items based on our preferences (AI can do this right now).

But I don’t think we want to be dressed by our AI or have the gifts we buy our friends automatically picked for us based on their Facebook activity. That can lead to some awkward gifts. But mainly I don’t think we will delegate all this to AI because this takes away our free will and our ability to make choices.

You can drive my car and pick the route but please don’t pick out my underwear.

Instead I think our personalised AI assistant will be there in our ears helping us find and navigate to the stores we are looking for, giving us in depth product information as we hold an item, and managing our finances. Artificial intelligence will automate the chores in life, like grocery shopping, making more time for us to cherish things and have new experiences.

More practically, if you are the retailer then the time that AI will save you will be the difference between business failure and amazing growth.

In small business this is where you will see AI make the biggest impact. Every day small business owners are facing make-or-break decisions — decisions based on data and which, 9.72 times out of 10, rely on solid analytical skills. That’s exactly the sort of thing that a computer is great at.

Smart business assistants are already popping up, powered by AI, which can process all your key business data in real time and make sensible suggestions, like what your next supplier order should be based on how sales have been. Artificial intelligence can help you identify the profile of your best customers and give you tips on how to best engage with them. Every morning your personalised store AI can greet the store owner with the summary of yesterday’s sales and what to try different today: try discounting these products, and these customers are slipping away so perhaps run an online campaign to re-engage with them.

Technology isn’t going to replace us, it’s going to free us up for the more important things in life, like meeting friends, going shopping or seeing our family. It will become our trusted advisor. It won’t run our lives or businesses but it will give us some pretty good advice.

This, I guess, all depends on whether or not our personal AI assistant is provided ‘for free’ by Google or Facebook. Nothing is ever free, and you will end up with an annoying friend trying to convince you to buy vitamins and mattresses all day. My hope is we’ll all retain some semblance of free will in the AI driven world, so we can all make better life decisions and have more time to bump into old friends.

NOW READ: Alibaba’s future of retail involves QR codes, smart mirrors, and gamified discounts

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Vaughan Rowsell

Vaughan Rowsell is the founder and chief product officer at Vend.

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