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Retailers need to prepare properly before AI adoption, say experts

Artificial intelligence can help many areas of the retail landscape, but retailers should make sure they prepare before taking on AI adoption, says an expert panel

Areas such as offering a personalised experience can be tackled with artificial intelligence (AI), but retailers should make sure they are prepared before adoption, says an expert panel.

Speaking at Retail Week Live, a panel of retail and technology experts highlighted the different ways AI could help to solve modern retail problems, but warned this technology cannot just be implemented without careful consideration.

Andy Done, director of data engineering at Farfetch, named data in particular as an area that retailers should be aware of before trying to implement AI.

He said AI “absolutely relies on us having high quality data feeds and paying attention to the structure of data” and that retailers “shouldn’t expect to drop AI on top of a big data mess”.

AI use cases

Technology such as AI and machine learning can help retailers utilise customer data in a “breadth” of areas, according to Done, including supply chain, logistics and marketing.

Customers are increasingly expecting a personalised experience when shopping, and want this shopping journey to be seamless across all channels depending on how they prefer to shop as an individual.

In stores for example, AI can give retailers the opportunity to provide a personalised experience because technology can help take some of the pressure off of store staff so they can spend more time with a customer and have the information they need about the customer on hand.  

“Personal customer experience in physical stores is absolutely critical and the technology, including things like AI, should be taking care of all the stuff behind the scenes to allow that interaction to take place,” said Done.

This shift in consumer behaviour, whereby customers expect to be able to shop across any channel depending on their needs and still expect a personalised experience, is causing retailers to adopt a more consumer-centric approach to cater to a new retail landscape where the consumers in control.

“Focusing on the customer experience gives us a ream of interesting and important problems to solve,” he said.

Using AI for complex processes

Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado, explained that as the amount of data captured and interpreted by retailers increases, AI will help with “decluttering” both the customer experience and the retailer’s internal experience by filtering these vast volumes of data which will only get “more extreme” as the internet of things (IoT) becomes more widely adopted. “Something is going to have to keep us sane,” he said.

The push towards omni-channel retail caused by consumer behaviour is making customer journeys more complex across the retail pipeline, and AI paired with data can help to spot problems “before they become problems for your customer” as well as help retailers learn and adapt to how people like to shop, said Clarke.

But as time goes on, Clarke said complexity in retail organisations will increase “beyond what humans staring at screens” can solve.

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AI will help people to make fewer mistakes in these situations, acting as a “Clipy sitting on your shoulder spotting what you’re doing”, said Clarke.

Out of technologies being rapidly adopted, such as cloud, big data, robotics and IoT, Clarke named AI “the one to rule them all, it’s the one that allows you to do really exciting things with all the others”.

But Danielle Haugedal-Wilson, head of architecture and analysis at Co-op Digital, said: “Just like any technology, there’s no point using it and putting it in if you’re not going to fill a need.”

Having a purpose for tech implementation

Retail is known for having legacy systems that make it difficult to implement new technologies, and could end up having the opposite effect than desired if not implemented properly.

For example, Haugedal-Wilson warned against personalising to the point where retailers are “restricting people’s view of choice” by limiting consumer discoveries because of previous behaviour.

Testing how these technologies will impact customers is “critical”, according to Haugedal-Wilson, who said: “Retailers need to create spaces where you can test, learn and innovate.”

But these technologies not only change how customers view a retailer, but also people’s ways of working in a company, which can sometimes cause tension.

Clarke said “it’s going to come with huge transformational change”, but that firms have “absolutely no choice” but to make these changes to adapt to customer behaviour.

“If we don’t do it, others will,” he said. “We may be an island but we can’t behave like one.”

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