“The robots are coming for our jobs!”
Every few years, when there is a dramatic advancement in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, we are bombarded with this mantra. Most recently, the cashier-less Amazon Go store sparked panic in the retail world as mass media declared the death of the brick-and-mortar retail employee. While things certainly are changing, the sky is not falling. However, it is important to acknowledge the reality that AI is, in fact, starting to reshape the retail world.
AI Is Taking Over Tasks, Not Jobs
It would be inaccurate to say that machines are not taking over tasks previously conducted by humans. However, they are taking over very specific tasks, typically simple, repetitive or mundane tasks. Think about ATMs. At their inception, there was mass panic that they would eliminate the need for bank tellers. Thirty years later, there are still ATMs – and there are still plenty of bank tellers. ATMs may have eliminated some foot traffic into banks, but it allowed banks to focus more effort on selling and servicing loans and offering valuable products and services at the branch level.
Similarly, in retail, artificial intelligence may be able to recommend a sweater for a customer based on her demographics, search history and buying history; but a machine can’t tell her how it looks, advise whether one size up might provide a bit more comfort without sacrificing style, it can’t make suggestions based on personal experience, or other nuances that only humans can deliver. AI may be able to help a customer locate an item in the store, but it can’t have a conversation about how the customer wants to use it or help them test it out. AI is taking away some of the tasks performed by people, but it’s not taking away the need for humans.
AI + Humans = Better Service Delivery
AI can take over a host of “human” retail tasks. It can locate an item in an aisle, it can alert shoppers to sales and discounts, and more. But because its capabilities are limited, it works much better in tandem with people. By putting the power of AI into a sales associate’s hands, for example, they can improve the speed and accuracy of their customer interactions in-store.
With an AI-enabled device, associates can immediately locate an item for a shopper, tell them whether there is more of that item in stock, or when it will be restocked from the warehouse. Shoppers get the human interaction that makes for great experiences and associates can deliver better service and exceed customer expectations.
AI can also take a customer’s detailed profile and provide associates with critical information they can use to provide a higher level of service. With AI technology, store associates could access a customer’s full profile, turning a complete stranger into “Mr. Bob Smith, who buys fly fishing equipment every April and is likely to be here to stock up on basic supplies, but he may also be due for a new rod since he was browsing for rods online last night and spent a lot of time with Reddington brand products.” How much more meaningful can that associate’s interaction become if she was able to learn all of that information about Bob thanks to AI?
What Will AI Do For You?
There are AI solutions for all aspects of retail from supply chain and logistics to warehousing to customer channels to sales and marketing. These technologies will continue to reshape retail and the retail workers across the ecosystem, and as those technologies evolve, retailers and workforces will have to adapt. Those who can identify the most useful AI technologies and start leveraging them today will be poised to cultivate a competitive workforce and a market-leading position tomorrow.