The question of whether the future of retail lies in the hands of robotic salespeople is one people are beginning to ask with increasing legitimacy. And some in-the-know analysts and even major retail businesses are starting to indicate that, indeed, this could be what the future looks like.
For instance, addressing this very question, China's second-largest retail giant and e-commerce business seems to be operating under the assumption that we're heading toward machine-driven retail.
JD.com has been investing heavily in robotics and automation, and chief executive Richard Liu believes that "sooner or later, retail will be operated by AI and robots."
While he believes that it will be at least another decade before retail becomes fully automated, Liu appears to be basing his forecast on the fact that AI is already slowly transforming the retail industry. From systems that can intelligently detect fraud, to marketing, product placement, and inventory, the tech is already making a significant impact.
Theft & Fraud
As retail shrinkage has turned into a multi-billion dollar monstrosity costing retailers almost $100 billion worldwide (according to 2017 figures), loss prevention has become more important. Retailers are now turning to AI and IoT solutions to address both external and internal losses.
Machine learning algorithms that can intelligently detect patterns and behaviors (of both employees and customers) are already being presented by companies like Massachusetts-based StopLift in order to help retailers avoid some of these losses.
Current systems in this vein are designed to complement human security personnel, but the future of AI loss prevention will largely replace human counterparts with connected camera systems and intelligent robots that will leverage data and analysis to detect and prevent suspicious behavior.
Real-time payments are also being fused with AI in the aim of preventing fraud. AI and machine learning are becoming valuable tools for payment companies and financial institutions, particularly as the retail experience moves increasingly towards e-commerce.
Some of the tech being put to use was actually developed to combat fraudulent payments and practices in online casinos, and is able to track behavioral patterns when clients log into their accounts, so as to detect if someone unauthorized might be using those accounts.
Reputable online casino resources are constantly upgrading and implementing new security measures to protect their clients, data, and money alike, and retailers are starting to take similar measures with smart, learning systems in place for their e-commerce platforms.
Marketing and Sales
Retail stores are also turning increasingly to IoT- and AI-enabled sensors to improve marketing and product placement based on customer behaviors. AI-enabled cameras can detect the walking patterns and gaze directions of a store's customers, and analyze interest in specific products.
Moreover, though we don't hear about this as much, the same cameras can conceivably pick up on demographic patterns, producing data that could help individual locations to optimize their sales strategies accordingly.
If a given product is selling better to certain demographics, for example, an AI system might suggest a particular store where that product should be emphasized accordingly, or even a time of day when it should be showcased in order to maximize selling potential.
In this sense, the retail store of the future, and the vision that platforms like Amazon: Go are aiming for is an autonomous, AI-powered shopping experience that will not require as much of a human touch for generating sales, marketing products, or even preventing losses.
There will be no checkouts, and customers may shop without seeing a human.
While this vision is still several years from coming to full fruition, retail leaders and consumers alike should prepare for a future in which the store experience truly is run by robots.