AI & Automation in Retail: How are stores coping with the change?

The retail shopping experience is constantly evolving. The stores of the future may look completely different than the ones that customers visit these days. A large contribution to what would make them different would be the integration of AI and automation. Almost every retailer in the world is competing against e-commerce giants like Amazon, and with the introduction of its physical store, Amazon Go, which uses cameras and sensors to charge customers, there is more competition. Tech companies are seeking to roll out powerful automation tools for retailers, but will these tools be able to entice customers?

Automation is a preferred choice

The benefits of automation have already been experienced on a smaller scale with supermarkets offering self-checkout kiosks. While retailers invest considerably in these innovations, some of the benefits can be decreased reliance on the staff, and ensuring that the customers complete their shopping journey seamlessly. Furthermore, a study also concluded that a majority of US consumers believe that self-checkout kiosks enhance the store experience.

The checkout process can be made faster and simpler using a smartphone, and customers may no longer need to stand in long queues. They can use apps that are designed to read barcodes of  products and automatically generate the bill for the customer within the app itself.

It is important to note, however, that these innovations do not replace the human effort and it simply supports the staff and makes the logistics process more efficient.

robot standing near luggage bags

Going beyond checkout

Automating the checkout is only one application of automation. Some other applications can be bots that can automatically stock shelves or smart devices that can provide signals for products going out of stock or nearing expiration dates. These applications can help store managers to efficiently manage the inventory with the right data. 

Automation as Customer Service

Retailers are increasingly using Robotic Process Automation to make transactions and providing answers for simple customer queries faster. This ensures that the customers are provided with the help that they need, without the need for engaging the store staff. The US retailer Lowe, as an excellent example of application of this idea, introduced the LoweBot – an in-store robot that converses with customers and helps them locate items in the store using real time inventory tracking. Furthermore, it acts as an alternative source of information for customers who have simple questions, freeing up employees to attend to customers who need more guidance with their queries.

Automation and Pick-Up Trends Merge

Many retailers, such as Target, provide customers with the option of placing an order online and having it picked up at a nearby store without having to get out of the car, much like Drive-Thru at fast food chains.

This facility in its current model, however, requires human involvement. . As soon as the store receives an order, a staff member is required to bag the order, while another may be required to take them to the customer’s vehicle. While this is a convenient option for the customer, it creates  labor inefficiency for the store. Automating these processes would free up the staff allowing them to help the customers in-store and streamline the pickup routine for customers.

selective focus photography of group of people selecting vinyl record sleeves

Despite the stiff competition online, in-store shopping will survive, however, it needs to change to meet changing customer needs and preferences. Retailers must realize the importance of AI and automation and capitalize on it to stay ahead. The goal should be not to out-do e-commerce giants like Amazon but to provide an involved face-to-face customer service in a welcoming environment.

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