AI-enabled technology is poised to trigger a paradigm shift in the retail industry.
With digital technology becoming ubiquitous worldwide, the term ‘digital era’ seems fully justified. Indeed, digital technology has driven disruptive changes in various industries across the globe, including the retail sector. Smart devices, smart sensors, self-driving vehicles, drones, AI (artificial intelligence), the IoT (Internet of Things) and the Cloud, among others, have played a major role in transforming retail.
As things now stand, however, it’s merely a question of time before the retail sector is transformed into autonomous retail. In this scenario, retail would effectively be a tech-based system that is interconnected and driven by services impacting every stakeholder – be they suppliers, partners or customers. The technologies involved in autonomous retail will include sensors, wearables, mobile devices, drones, self-driving vehicles and the overarching AI, creating an autonomous retail industry focused on providing enhanced, enjoyable and personalized customer experience.
Elements of Autonomous Retail
For most analysts, the advances in technology would be perceived as the main reason behind the emergence of futuristic autonomous retail. While the technological impact cannot be overlooked, another key driver has been rising customer expectations in recent times. Since consumer approval is decisive in the success of any industry, retailers worldwide are compelled to incorporate technological upgrades that delight customer, in turn increasing customer loyalty.
Although autonomous retail has innovative connotations, it’s yet to be fully explored by companies and industries universally. Nonetheless, there are some key areas where e-commerce and brick-and-mortar companies could implement measures to initiate the shift towards autonomous retail:
- Smart Logistics
To build next generation retail, logistics needs to be overhauled to become efficient and adaptive. Early signs of transformation are being observed. Transporters & fleet owners are adopting vision technologies backed by AI, for tracking material flow and enhancing safety. Real time material tracking coupled with real time driver’s behavior monitoring enables to capture on-road material movement and reduce performance variance in human driving. These technologies can be extended to take role of co-pilot for the driver and later, can take most of cognitive load of driving from driver, making logistics a smarter one.
- Inventory Management
To run a business, inventory management is one of the most critical aspects of both e-commerce and traditional stores. Modern warehouses and stores are employing mobile robots which have suite of sensors that not only enables swift movement of goods but also tracks products in real time. The Big Data created from the sensor suite paves way for removing bottlenecks in the processes and hence, releasing resources stuck in form of inventory.
- Self-aware Stores
An IoT-enabled brick-and-mortar store is something any retailer would love to own. Imagine running a conventional store where a customer is greeted, helped in navigating the store based on his/her shopping list and informed about exciting, relevant offers and smart payment processes all via the assistance of smart sensors.
That’s not all! Even retailers will benefit immensely from autonomous technology by being assured about better placement of products and real-time inventory updates, thereby ensuring timely order of placement and replenishment.
- After-sales Service
Another important aspect of ensuring happy customers is offering superior after-sales service. In the case of high-value products such as refrigerators and washing machines, efficient after-sales can ascertain the services are tracked and notifications for regular visits are automatically generated. But AI-enabled intelligence has gone a step ahead, allowing manufacturers and retailers to understand the issues faced by customers and their buying patterns, thereby helping further improve the product.
Transformative Supply Chains
Additionally, perhaps the biggest impact in the retail landscape will occur through supply chains deploying driverless vehicles, backed by the IoT, Cloud Computing and Big Data Analytics. To elaborate, the journey of the integrated supply chain would commence from a cluster of suppliers, linked with manufacturers’ integrated plant systems through the IoT. After receiving online orders, supplies would be delivered swiftly and smoothly via autonomous vehicles to the plant.
There, mobile robots will handle the relevant tasks of internal distribution and onward despatch. Robots would load the finished goods onto driverless trucks, which would transport them to smart warehouses. Consignments will then be categorized and shipped to retailers by driverless vans or sent to customers directly. Finally, last-mile connectivity will be achieved by autonomous vehicles taking the package to customers. A delivery executive or robot would then hand over parcels to the receiving customers. Complete details of this integrated supply chain shipment would be safely stored in the Cloud – always available for reference in future.
In the entire retail journey, AI would be present in some way or the other: smart devices crunching supply data, autonomous vehicles transferring consignments from suppliers to manufacturers and then warehouses and, finally, to customers – with robots playing a role in shifting consignments from the first supply point to the last-mile delivery destination.
All along the journey, AI-backed systems will keep tracking customers’ expectations and preferences. In today’s ultra-competitive market scenario where customer expectations are soaring and brand loyalty can be as fickle as shifting sands, comprehending customers’ mindsets could help pre-empt their switch to other brands. Understanding customer preferences and purchase patterns could help drive and deliver personalized and enjoyable experiences.
Once brand loyalty is assured, companies could derive enormous benefits such as greater efficiency, quicker delivery and turnaround times, lower maintenance and inventory costs as well as reduced operational expenses. Globally, retailers couldn’t have asked for more.
By Anuj Kapuria, Founder & CEO – The Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz and Co-chair – Robotics Society of India