There is no question that AI and robotics will have a profound impact on the retail industry – but precisely what that impact will be has been a subject of debate.
My experience at this year’s Hong Kong Electronics Fair, the world’s largest, gave me a glimpse of how AI will transform the retail experience, starting with the introduction of helpful robots into brick-and-mortar stores, and continuing with the installation of smart machines that can do everything from delivering goods directly to customers to making a tasty cup of coffee.
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This year’s fair highlighted the growing demand for AI products, as well as the innovations that such demand has created. During my visit, I stopped by Alibaba’s pavilion, which presented the latest smart products from a series of selected suppliers; given the range of electronics goods that can be bought from the retailer, their focus is an indication of how valuable this particular market is. But while the majority of smart products are developed for use in the home, there is also a significant demand for AI-powered products in business settings, from facial recognition systems to security robots.
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One industry in particular which has the potential to be completely transformed by AI in retail. Not only can AI help ease the burden on current retail employees, it can also completely redefine how people shop, and how stores themselves are set up. For example, stores could install robots who are equipped to answer basic questions from shoppers, such as where certain things are located or the price of specific goods.
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At Cheetah Mobile, we see a giant opportunity in smart service robots, so we built the Cheetah GreetBot “Big Boss” helper to assist customers. We brought it to Hong Kong to test how international customers would interact with a robot when shopping for our CM Translator device. Attendees had plenty of positive feedback to share, so we’re optimistic that robots will improve retail stores through consistent, personalized service.
In the near future, robots could help direct the flow of traffic within shopping malls as a means of managing crowds – or entice people to visit certain stores, depending on who’s operating them.
One other way that robots can drastically transform the retail landscape is by changing how people shop entirely. There are definite benefits to buying things in person rather than online: being able to try things on in person, for instance, and avoid shipping costs. But at the same time, shopping is an exhausting process; not only do you spend a lot of time on your feet, wandering from place to place, but there’s also no guarantee that the store will have what you need once you get there. All of this expends a lot of time and energy, and for people who don’t enjoy the process, that may be too much to bear.
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With robots, however, you can re-engineer the shopping process. Our vision of the future of retail is instead of having to go from shop to shop, why not let the goods come to you? If you’re thirsty, instead of having to walk from the store to find a cafe, you could find a nearby vending machine robot like Cheetah VendBot to deliver it to you. Or, perhaps, stop by a robotic-arm barista to make you a freshly-made cup of coffee. You could also take the same principle and apply it to other goods, thus making the purchasing experience more efficient, and allowing stores to provide more value to the customer that way.
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That’s one way to do it. Another way to use AI would be to equip stores or consumers with tools that would simplify or improve the shopping experience.
For instance, AI is particularly good at sussing out patterns in large amounts of data – so if you were to feed it anonymized customer data, it would be able to come up with product recommendations that suit a customer’s shopping habits. In other words, you’d be bringing Amazon’s recommendation engine to physical stores. Not only would you be able to give customers what they want, but retailers could also potentially increase their revenue by being better able to meet their customers’ needs.
For businesses with multiple brick-and-mortar locations, having robots can actually ensure quality control, to an extent. Part of what makes the in-store shopping experience better is the atmosphere that experienced salespeople strive to create, whether it’s by greeting people at the door or answering any queries that customers have. But training employees takes time and resources. Now that we have developed robots with the ability to interact with people, it’s a simple matter to equip them with the product and store information that customers need via a cloud service platform, thus ensuring that the customer experience is consistent across all stores – and giving people a reason to shop in person, rather than online.
Globalization of Local Retail AI Trends is Unstoppable
Another theme that I noticed in this year’s Electronics Fair was the increasingly globalized nature of commerce. After all, Alibaba doesn’t just cater to Chinese customers; it has the ability to reach billions of people around the world. But customers who don’t speak Chinese or English might find it difficult to navigate the site, and Google Translate isn’t always a reliable source.
We see a need for handheld AI translators like our CM Translator to bridge that gap by using speech recognition and machine translation to translate conversations quickly and accurately, allowing for more seamless communications between store employees and customers. Whether you’re looking for the latest beauty products in a South Korean mall, desserts in a Japanese bakery, or handmade leather goods from an outdoor market in Spain, AI translation makes the purchasing process – and the search – much simpler.
Retail is a complicated industry, where businesses are constantly under siege from competitors and struggling to keep up with the latest trends. By using AI, however, retailers can find new ways to appeal to shoppers, while making themselves better able to meet their needs. The introduction of robots into the retail landscape also has the potential to transform the physical layout of stores and shopping centers.
Efficiency is key – and the combination of robots, AI and big data has the potential to make the retail industry more efficient than ever for businesses and more enjoyable for customers.