Self-checkouts at the supermarket and ordering groceries online are just the beginning of how retail is shifting towards the increasing use of technology and automation. Take that one step further and you have Amazon Go stores, a brick-and-mortar retailer like Walmart trying to put a store in your home, and in-store WiFi tracking that monitors your every movement while you shop. It’s scary, I know.
But think of how innovation and automation have helped in the past. Through many iterations, you now have a cell phone that can fit in your pocket, and Ford’s moving assembly line has revolutionized the manufacturing process. Likewise, in order to survive in this age of AI, machine learning, and automation, retailers need to balance customer experience with cutting-edge technologies.
Using tech just for the sake of being on the “cutting-edge” is worthless. Technology is only beneficial when it can help you make smarter decisions for your business by finding patterns in your data.
Director of Product and Data Science at IdealSpot, Josh Winters, keynoted recently at the annual STI conference about the use of machine learning as it pertains to retailers.
“Machine learning is a window into complexity. It gives us new metrics that were technologically infeasible in past decades. With insights discovered through machine learning, you can arrange stores around the shopping habits of your most profitable customers using emerging tools like in-store tracking, or offer dynamic pricing adjustments for customers based on their shopping profiles.”
Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can find the connections that we simply can’t comprehend. Using complex algorithms, retailers will be able to understand why customers are buying specific products by knowing what their lives are like outside of the retail store.
Google knows more about us than our spouses, Josh says. “Through always-on location tracking, Google knows where I have been every moment of every day over the past several years.”
“It’s a fascinating time as retailers are finally waking up to the existential threats they face after a decade of their heads in the sand,” says Trevor Sumner, CEO of retail tech company Perch Interactive and NYC entrepreneur.
“Everyone in the industry is rapidly collecting and normalizing data to provide enhanced and predictive analytics to guide the business to much greater efficiency. Collecting data on customers and enabling loyalty programs are a mandate for success.”
Although we are still a ways off from perfecting this type of analytics, by collecting information on what, when, and where your customers purchase different products through machine learning, we can start to get at the why a purchase was made at a particular place and time, Josh concludes.
With data and automation telling retailers what products should be placed where and checkout-less stores, the question of what happens to the human interaction and the customer experience becomes apparent.
It will still be there, just different. By using automation, retailers can now be more focused on delivering the right experience to the right customer at the right time, instead of worrying about store layouts, if there’s enough stock in warehousing, or how to price their items.
“…automation will be used to deepen the brand and sales associate relationship, providing more information at the point of sale, including customer information for personalized offers, messages, and loyalty programs. Sales associates will continue to build relationships with in-store customers through automated marketing programs and online/mobile chat,” Trevor says.
Think Warby Parker and Bonobos, Josh notes. These two ‘online turned brick-and-mortar’ retailers are on the frontier of the ‘new customer experience focused’ shopping. They act more like showrooms than a traditional brick-and-mortar store. Customers come in and browse the catalog while getting superior service by specialized sales people that are solely focused on the limited amount of products in-store.
“Our notion of online and in-store [retail] will turn upside down,” Trevor said.
“In the past, online is where you found media and explored products that you bought in-store. In the future, you go to stores that become media outlets to discover products and order for delivery online. Subscriptions will power a replenishment economy and brand loyalty will become much stronger and brands will invest heavily in the infrastructure to directly build those relationships.”
Malls will be completely reinvented to be focused on food halls, education, events and pop-ups, Trevor adds, and stores will reinvent themselves as experiential destinations, powered in part by interactive digital experiences with deep integration with your mobile phone for payment, identity, and product exploration through augmented reality.
This is to come. For now, traditional retailers are scrambling to try to catch up to new tech. Home Depot just announced they will add 1,000 new tech jobs as a “three-year strategic investment plan”, while Walgreens is adding 300 new technology positions in their Chicago office.
The doom-and-gloom of the retail apocalypse is here, for some. But those that are shifting and adapting to new technologies will keep thriving. Think about Sears versus Walmart. Sears Holdings Corp. is expected to close 64 Kmart and 39 Sears stores this month while Walmart recently added a tech hub in Austin focused on data science, machine learning, and mobile engineering. Additionally, Walmart now offers home deliveries and is experimenting with a checkout anywhere concept.
Only time will tell where a retailer that is changing with the times like Walmart lands, but we can already see where traditional retailers that are stuck in their old ways have gone.