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Why Commerce Players Must Invest In Artificial Intelligence Today

April 5th, 2017

There is no way to spell “retail” without AI. The power of artificial intelligence (AI) to transform the consumer journey dominated the conversation at Shoptalk this week. In its second year, Shoptalk brought together 5,000-plus players across the full ecosystem to better understand the continuous evolution of how consumers discover, browse and buy in the digital era.

AI, which refers to technologies capable of performing tasks normally requiring human intelligence, goes back centuries. The idea of cognitive computing gained steam in the 1940s when Alan Turing suggested that a machine could simulate any conceivable act of mathematical deduction. While AI technologies were commercially available by the 1980s, it was not until the turn of this century that the cognitive capabilities that comprise the emerging machine intelligence trend truly took off. In 2011, IBM Watson famously beat Jeopardy champions while at the same time personal assistants, such as Siri, Google Now and Cortana, entered the mainstream conversation. In 2015, Elon Musk and others announced a $1 billion initiative to develop a friendly artificial intelligence.

Now the confluence of three powerful drivers, including exponential data growth, more sophisticated distributed networks and smarter algorithms, have propelled artificial intelligence to commerce’s center stage. While companies have been collecting petabytes of data for years, the reality is that most struggle to make sense of it all. At its lowest common denominator, AI enables brands to better synthesize mounds of data and incorporate those learnings to improve the commerce experience.

Below are four ways that artificial intelligence has the potential to transform tomorrow’s commerce experience:

(1) Empowering store associates

As more retail sales shift to online channels, a number of retailers are looking at ways to better incorporate technologies into the physical retail environment in order to empower store associates and improve the in-store experience. For example, home improvement store Lowe’s introduced the first autonomous robot as a pilot in late 2014 and began rolling out the LoweBot in 11 Lowe’s stores in late 2016. The 5-foot-tall shopping assistant created in conjunction with Fellow Robots greets customers, guides them around the store, sources product information and aids employees with inventory management. This, in turn, frees up store associates to engage in more meaningful interactions with shoppers.

(2) Enabling more powerful search

Consumers abandon e-commerce experiences because the product results are often irrelevant, according to Amir Konigsberg, the CEO of Twiggle, which helps e-commerce search engines think the way human beings do. Konigsberg and another ex-Googler founded this company on the notion of helping e-commerce companies to utilize natural language processing to narrow, contextualize and improve search results for online shoppers. Clairfai is another startup working to improve search but in this case through more advanced image and video recognition. Leveraging machine learning, its software automatically tags, organizes and visually searches content by labeling features of the image or video. As an example, Pinterest recently introduced an update to its Chrome extension, which enables a consumer to select an item in any photograph online and asks Pinterest to surface similar items using image recognition software.

(3) Improving recommendations

Using artificial intelligence, brands are able to more intelligently and efficiently comb through petabytes of data to better predict consumer behavior and offer recommendations tied to individual consumers. Such insights are key to creating personalized consumer shopping experiences. Starbucks, which continues to push into new digital frontiers, is utilizing AI to analyze all the data it has gathered on its consumers and deliver more personalized suggestions as part of its next evolution. The algorithm leverages a variety of inputs, including account information, customer preferences, purchase history, third-party data and contextual information. In early 2017, Starbucks launched “My Starbucks Barista”, which will utilize AI to enable customers to place orders with voice command or messaging, to 1,000 US consumers with a more extensive roll-out planned in 2017.

(4) Providing the personal touch

All these technological advances changed what consumers expect. Commerce in this era is about building experiences for one, not the mass market. Artificial intelligence will be critical to doing so with chatbots and personal assistants driving the conversation in this next era of conversational commerce. These advances are rooted in natural language processing and the machine’s ability to interpret what people are saying in words or text. As an example, Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, which has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in commerce, has been integrated into Amazon’s own products as well as products from other manufacturers. Using Alexa on Amazon’s Echo device, for example, consumers can discover local events for the upcoming weekend through StubHub or order a ride via Uber or Lyft. Hungry? Domino’s enables customers to order pizza and track the order status. 1-800-Flowers even enables consumers to send flowers to a loved one via voice.

(5) Adopt AI or else

eBay’s President and CEO Devin Wenig warned attendees during his keynote that any business without an artificial intelligence strategy will die in the next three years. “AI is really buzzy, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong,” he explained. Tim Tuttle, who founded the artificial intelligence provider MindMeld, agreed with this sentiment, explaining during a later panel discussion that companies like Netflix and Amazon have been building their respective recommendations platforms for years so waiting to implement such a strategy would be detrimental long term. “You have to build up better and better data signals over time,” Tuttle explained. While AI can be leveraged to augment the commerce experience, it is important to keep in mind that machines are not likely to replace retail associates anytime soon. These enhanced experiences will combine the efficiency of the machine with the logic, empathy and relationship building that only humans provide today. To date, artificial intelligence is not that intelligent.

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Michelle Evans

As the Global Head of Digital Consumer Research at Euromonitor International, Michelle Evans oversees digital research to provide actionable insights and in-depth analyses into how technology is fundamentally changing commerce. Recognized as a thought leader in digital commerce, she was named to Innotribe’s Power Women in Fintech in 2015 and Asian Entrepreneur’s Women on Top in Tech in 2016. She regularly shares her expertise across industry events whether as a speaker, chairperson or juror. Leveraging her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, she authors a biweekly column in Forbes and has been quoted in several publications globally. She follows the technological advances that are shaping the way consumers browse and buy goods and services with her specialty spanning mobile payments, digital commerce, e-commerce, m-commerce, digital marketing and social media.

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