retail ai

AI could soon be as crucial to businesses as the web, retail experts say

Image credit: DT

Using artificial intelligence (AI) to interact with customers and predict their wants and needs will become a mainstay of consumer-driven businesses in the near future according to retail experts.

“We’re trying to use to AI to find out what the customer wants and how can we solve those problems,” said Kelly Kowal, MD at online fashion company Farfetch, speaking during a panel session at the Decoded Future conference in East London.

Kowal admitted that AI has yet to reach its full potential and that it’s still “early days” when it comes to conversing with customers. But she said that companies are already using the burgeoning technology to handle some of the more mundane tasks associated with customer communication.

“It helps us move faster,” she said. “It helps us talk to our customers in a smarter way and it helps us to test and learn. But I don’t know where it fits with the actual one-to-one interactions with customers just yet.”

One example of where AI can be used in this way, alongside human operators, has been demonstrated by software company Amdocs. It is using Microsoft’s natural-language processing system to understand the emotions of customers phoning in to call centres. 

The system reads their voice, including volume and intonation, to determine the level of frustration or satisfaction they are experiencing and then recommends appropriate actions to the call-centre workers.

But Alex Loizou, CTO of fashion company Trouva, warned that while AI has its uses it can also put customers off if implemented too aggressively.

He said that consumers can feel “creeped out” if they feel that brands have too much information on them, especially if they try and show them desirable products and services “that the customer thinks they shouldn’t know about”.

In 2012 for example, American retailer Target started sending a teenager coupons for pregnancy products based on analytics of earlier purchases, giving the game away before her father even knew about it. 

Instead Loizou said that AI should be used to take “things that are repetitive back to the machines” so that they can deal with them, giving the human workers more time to think creatively and put their skills to good use.

“We all have this fear that AI is coming for our jobs when in fact it’s about creating space for creativity,” said panel leader Steve Tooze from Stylus.

“This year is the year that AI will finally begin to realise its potential as a tool for brand and for profit building,” he said.

Kowal believe that companies need to understand exactly what they want to achieve with AI and that it’s only useful if implemented effectively.

“Is it time efficiency? Is it cost efficiency? Is it revenue? Is it servicing your customers?” she said.

While the nascent technology is still in its early days, the panel agreed it has potential and could ultimately revolutionise the way brands and companies operate when interacting with their customers.

“It goes back to the same question that people were asking 20 years ago: can you live without a web page? Today you can’t but 20 years ago you could,” Loizou said.

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