The Global Retail Marketing Association (GRMA) hosts a keynote event each year that brings in some of the greatest minds in retail technology, consumer behavior and future trends to share experiences and provide expert insights. Over the course of two and half days, C-level executives and marketers get the chance to learn, network and interact with peers to talk about the trends that will most impact retail in the coming years.
Here are just a few of the highlights and key takeaways from this year’s forum.
Can Machines and Humans Work Together?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been a buzzword for some time, and it seems like every year, we hear that robots are poised to take over the American workforce. Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster who famously beat IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1996 – and then lost to Deep Blue the following year – spoke on this very topic.
Kasparov suggested that “augmented intelligence” is a much more accurate name for AI. Machines, he argues, aren’t necessarily “better” at tasks than humans, they are just faster and act with brute force. Consider a chess match. A grandmaster can look at the board and can assess the best next move, running through possibly 100 or so scenarios in a short period of time. A machine, on the other hand, can be programmed to scan through millions of scenarios in a matter of seconds. That machine is not better at chess than the grandmaster, it is simply faster and imposes brute force.
This is exactly what’s happening with AI in the global workforce today. Machines are being programmed to help humans process information faster and to take over repetitive and mundane tasks, but they simply do not have the capacity to replace humans. They lack the understanding of context and nuance that are so important to decision-making. And this will likely be the landscape for the foreseeable future. Machines will be there to make our work easier, and they will create more jobs as more people are required to program, operate and maintain them, but they aren’t going to “take over” the retail workforce any time soon.
Will Blockchain Revolutionize Retail?
Anyone with a TV and internet connection has witnessed the meteoric rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in recent years. Based on blockchain technology, cryptocurrency is a method of transferring money between two parties without a bank or other third-party administrator.
Today, you can send an email from the US to Asia instantaneously. But if you are conducting a monetary transaction, it takes days for that transaction to leave your bank and clear the recipient’s bank. Blockchain uses a decentralized system of networked computers to verify and approve a cryptocurrency transaction. The transaction is fast, completely secure, and each record of the verification process is permanent, which virtually eliminates fraud – a win-win for both retailers and their customers.
However, Blockchain has not yet made it into the mainstream. Most major global governments do not endorse cryptocurrencies, and while they are interested in the fraud reduction possibilities behind blockchain, they are not actively endorsing that technology, either. While companies in all industries are starting to dip their toes into crypto and blockchain, it will likely take years before this technology is adopted on a mass scale.
Is it Possible to Compete In a Post-Amazon World?
The Amazon effect has been plaguing retailers for over a decade. But it is retailers that have failed to adapt who have been unable to weather the storm. Retailers and brands of all sizes have been innovating ways to grow their customer bases in this “post-Amazon” economy – and they have been succeeding. For some brands it means selling products through Amazon. For others, it means partnering with Amazon—like Kohl’s has. Kohl’s stores accept Amazon returns and even showcase some Amazon products in their stores. Still, others are working on growing their customer base in ways that don’t involve Amazon whatsoever.
Amazon is a behemoth, but survival is possible for retailers that understand their customers’ habits and preferences, that can deliver exceptional, personalized service and that strategize new ways to bring more people into their stores and maintain relationships with their current fans.
Where Does Retail Marketing Go From Here?
If technologies like AI and blockchain are years away from making an impact on the way retailers conduct their daily business, should you just ignore them? If your company isn’t the size of Wal Mart or Target, can you ever compete with Amazon? The answers to these questions are not black and white, and that can make the future a bit frightening. Speaker Alison Levine, summed it up nicely when she noted that fear is good; complacency will kill you.
Levine, the first female Everest expedition captain, has climbed the highest peak on every continent and has skied to both the North and South Poles, so she knows a little something about fear. She wanted the retail marketers in attendance to know that fear is healthy. While climbing, fear is what heightens your senses and makes you look twice before you step. It keeps you cautious and careful – and keeps you moving. However, complacency can paralyze you and will ultimately, put your life in danger.
A healthy fear of emerging technologies and a healthy fear of Amazon are natural, but those fears will only serve retailers if they use it to fuel innovation, creativity and new ideas. Rather than avoiding new technology or giving up against major ecommerce retailers, marketers can benefit by learning what they can and by getting familiar with the things that frighten them. Try researching bitcoin to understand how the technology works and to learn the language of crypto. Or perhaps think of ways to leverage AI to process data faster and help augment current workflows. Facing these “fears” head on today may just put you in a more competitive position tomorrow.
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