Reinventing retail: Tech’s helping hand

Published on the 17/04/2019 | Written by Heather Wright


In an omni-channel retail world, tech rules…

From AI to robots to augmented reality – tech is transforming retail and bringing down the walls between the bricks and mortar and virtual worlds, with convenience the name of the game.

It’s the ‘new retail’ concept, touted by Alibaba co-founder and chairman Jack Ma back in 2017 – a retail world where the boundaries between offline and online commerce disappear and personalisation and convenience rule.

And while doomsday predictions about the death of bricks and mortar have abounded for years, real world stores are now being embraced by some of the biggest online names, including Alibaba and Amazon who are bringing their tech nous to play in the real-world formats.

“By leaning into the future, associates will be able to have more satisfying jobs as retail continues to change.”

While Amazon has been highly visible with its Amazon Go AI-powered, checkoutless stores, it’s not the only player by a long shot as tech increasingly infiltrates retail.

Chinese online giant’s high-tech 7Fresh supermarkets features smart shopping carts which trundle through the store autonomously, leaving shoppers free to focus on their purchases rather than pushing a trolley. Mobile app and digital payment technologies take care of scanning and payments, and big data analytics ensure in-store offerings match customer demand.’s latest high-tech chain, called X, includes access via facial recognition (customers have to register online first) and automated payments.

Meanwhile Amazon’s new concept store, Amazon 4-star, uses online algorithms to stock only products with a four-star or higher rating.

A new report from Juniper Research says global spending by retailers on AI services will more than treble to US$12 billion by 2023 – up from an estimated $3.6 billion this year – as retailers seek to harness the promise of improved margins.

The report, AI in Retail: Segment Analysis, Vendor Positioning and Market Forecasts 2019-2023 says the use of machine learning for demand forecasting will be a key market for AI vendors.

“Demand forecasting will be essential to enable an effective omnichannel experience and drive higher margins. This will mean the number of retailers using AI-enabled demand forecasting will more than triple between 2019 and 2023,” Juniper says.

“With the rise of collect-in-store and one-off events such as Black Friday, understanding demand and supply chains is more crucial than ever with AI playing the central role,” says research author Nick Maynard.

AI will extend to the checkouts too, Juniper says, with smart checkouts, powered by AI technologies such as computer vision, playing a strong role in our retail future.

A previous report from Juniper says AI can ‘revive’ retail, through personalisation, chatbots and analytics across demand forecasting/supply chain, customer and marketing and payment provider to identify and quickly respond to trends.

Certainly, analytics and the use of data is front of mind for many local retailers, as witnessed at last week’s GS1 Connect 2019 eCommerce Innovation Summit in Auckland, where much of the discussion centred around use of data to create more personalised, convenient shopping experiences.

Meanwhile, augmented reality is also making a play for the retail market.

Gartner says 100 million consumers will use augmented and virtual reality instore and online by next year.

Hanna Karki, Gartner principal research analyst, says AR and VR can be ‘transformative’ in retail.

“Retailers can use AR as an extension of the brand experience to engage customers in immersive environments and drive revenue,” she says.

She cites the example of Ikea’s Place app, which enables customers to virtually ‘place’ IKEA products in their space.

“Additionally, AR can be used outside the store after a sale to increase customer satisfaction and improve loyalty,” Karki says.

“With VR’s immersive interfaces, retailers can create task efficiencies or reduce the costs associated with designing new products. They can also enhance the understanding of information through advanced graphical visualisation and simulation technologies.

“Pilots and implementation examples include Alibaba’s full VR shopping experience, virtual reality tours by Tesco, Adidas’ VR video to promote its outdoor clothing collection, and eBay Australia’s partnerships with Myer to create personalised stores.”

Robots, too, are helping transform retail. Walmart is embracing robots whole-heartedly with the company saying it wants store workers to focus on helping customers and selling merchandise, rather than unloading stock and mopping floors.

Last week the company announced it is rolling out thousands of robots to help with those jobs, with Elizabeth Walker, Walmart corporate affairs, announcing ‘we’re going big’ with ‘automated assistants’ across its US stores.

The automated assistant lineup includes autonomous floor cleaners, autonomous shelf scanners to improve availability, shelf location and price accuracy and ‘fast unloaders’ which will work with the shelf scanners to scan and sort items unloaded from trucks based on priority and department.  New ‘pickup towers’ – giant ‘vending machines’ – will also be implemented for storing online orders for in-store pickups.

Walmart says the assistants will free staff up from ‘repeatable, predictable and manual’ tasks, allowing them to instead focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers.

Walker says the assistants aren’t just about convenience.

“The idea is that by leaning into the future, associates will be able to have more satisfying jobs as retail continues to change,” she says.

At a time when unemployment is at its lowest level in decades, the bots also, of course, have cost-saving benefits for Walmart – US retailers have had to increase wages in order to attract and keep staff and a robot is a one-off cost, without the need for weekly pay and benefits. There was no word from Walmart on whether any staff would lose jobs.

While Walmart’s robots aren’t customer facing, US hardware store Lowe’s multi-lingual LoweBot has been helping customers find products in store since 2016.

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