Can AI Help Humanize the Shopping Experience??

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By: Bryan Pearson |

Posted on February 13, 2019

If there’s one thing artificial intelligence should teach retailers, it’s that their employees should know at least as much about their shoppers as the cameras tracking them.

That could be the case soon enough. More retailers are using cameras, beacons and other technologies to track how shoppers move through their stores, primarily to understand the shopper journey and to optimize the physical retail environment. This also could present new opportunities to pivot employees into experience engineers. If retailers aren’t already getting candid with their personnel about using the insights from these shopper-tracking technologies in real time, it’s high time they do.

"This also could present new opportunities to pivot employees into experience engineers."

Central to doing this effectively means getting the training right. Consumers frequently view the immediate and sensitive nature of AI-collected data with concern, which underscores the need for all team members — from digital natives to the newly aware — to understand how to responsibly and effectively use it. Training must be customized, much like the shopper experience is expected to be personalized.

One other drum-tight reason for customized AI training: It reduces turnover, which is essential for AI-enabled experiences. More than two-thirds of workers leave a new position within half a year, according to a recent report in Forbes. Of them, 23% said they might have stayed if managers had communicated better, while 21% blamed poor training.

Commandeering The AI Aisles

For now, tracking tech is designed largely to gather data that will help brands produce more contextually relevant advertising and offers. They entice shoppers back into the stores, where tracking networks guide them to other products they might want to buy.

This is where the employee is supposed to step in. The data collected from in-store tracking should empower workers to commandeer the customer experience in the moment, by improving knowledge not just of the products a store sells, but also of the customers’ preferences.

There’s even a term for the technology — the “location of things” — and it’s expected to be worth $71.6 billion by 2025.

The concept is not exactly new. Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus recognized the importance of meshing in-store tracking with associate training way back in 2012 when it tested a mobile app that alerted employees when a customer arrived in the store. The app also informed customers when their favorite associate was on the floor.

Among retailers looking into tracking tech today are Ralph Lauren, which plans to use beacons to note when shoppers enter and leave a store, as well as how they navigate it. And Walgreens is replacing its inventory systems with mobile computers and tablets by Zebra Technologies that enable employees to check planograms as well as look up product information and set up deliveries.

Kroger, meanwhile, is testing smart shelves by Microsoft that will include video analytics to help employees do their jobs better. The digital signs flash to show staff members items to be collected for Kroger’s curbside deliveries, and image-recognition cameras monitor when stock is running low. Sensors in the store’s cooler cases can alert employees if temperatures rise, preventing spoilage.

3 Musts For Employee AI Training

The challenge to putting these technologies to good employee use is ensuring they come off as helpful, not invasive. One approach is to train the staff to target shoppers already enrolled in a retailer’s rewards program. But they must know how to make the benefits of that data-sharing clear.

Here are three training guidelines, from the experts.

  • Consumerize the training. More organizations are approaching employee orientation as a “consumerized” process, from onboarding to learning the AI systems. This requires each step of training to be personalized. One method for doing so is by using AI-powered chatbots that are available around the clock. As explained in a recent story in Forbes: “For HR leaders peering five or 10 years down the road, the promised land is a comprehensive, personalized, artificially intelligent employee portal.”
  • Give them virtual assistants. Rather than replace employees, robots and AI could better the employee experience. In addition to training, AI-enabled chatbots can serve as digital colleagues that assist employees when interacting with customers, as described in Total Retail. “At a supermarket … if a customer asks about options for seasoning meat, a clerk might not have a recommendation offhand, but he or she could find an answer with assistance from a virtual assistant.” The same virtual assistants can store and process knowledge gleaned from employees for future customer identification and interactions.

"Retail technology can be pretty meaningless if not perceived in the context of humanity."

  • Don’t forget the human touch. Retail technology can be pretty meaningless if not perceived in the context of humanity. Listening, understanding, caring — these qualities separate invasive in-store experiences from the helpful ones. A recent survey by the consulting firm the Retail Doctor reveals that 79% of 400 surveyed retail executives think in-store virtual reality and AI will improve sales, yet only 14% of shoppers said these technologies influence their purchase decisions. Employees should be regularly reminded to look, listen and empathize with their shoppers.

In the end, what bridges the gap between technology and purchase behavior is customer understanding. When employees can use the insights from AI and tracking devices to serve shoppers at the precise moment they need it, they make connections. And connections make the shopper and employee feel better. That’s what leads to loyalty.

Bryan Pearson a Featured Contributor to The Wise Marketer and is the President of LoyaltyOne, where he has been leveraging the knowledge of 120 million customer relationships over 20 years to create relevant communications and enhanced shopper experiences. 

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Be sure to follow Bryan on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.