With all non-essential shops in the UK having shut their doors for months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers are going to need every advantage they can get to bounce back. As we enter the new normal, research suggests nearly half of UK consumers are still inclined to buy online, showcasing changing shopper behaviors established during lockdown and the ongoing safety concerns that many of us still have.

Shopping centers, in particular, are struggling as tenants pause or end contracts due to footfall dropping at unprecedented rates. You only have to look at the collapse of Intu, the owner of some of UK’s largest shopping centers, to understand the sheer impact of the pandemic on brick-and-mortar retail. However, ecommerce retailers have not gone untouched by the crisis, with Asos reporting declining sales during lockdown and other online companies going into liquidation.

Critical to re-stimulating retail consumption will be in creating unique customer experiences and a seamless customer journey. Technology, particularly artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of intelligent automated services, can help deliver this. Whether it’s through increased customer engagement, enhanced personalization or sales team support, AI will play an important role – both online and in-store. By surprising and delighting customers through new innovations, retailers will build up customer retention and ultimately drive sales.

Creating a tailor-made online experience

Many online retailers are already tapping into innovation on the backend, where sophisticated AI systems work to offer suggestions to new and existing customers. This has helped the growth of the e-commerce and m-commerce sectors, where customers can now buy items in just a couple of clicks via Instagram.

AI can be combined with machine learning to keep track of previous customer selections and preferences and make predictions about future purchases. This paves the way for repeat buying and increased customer loyalty – something which all retailers will be striving for in the wake of COVID-19.

Digital assistants embedded into a retailer’s website can help predict consumer behavior before they’ve even started browsing, ensuring customers get everything they want from their shopping experience from the get-go. Customers need to be able to view the entire product range from any device, anywhere and at any time. 

They may want to know more about when an item might come back in stock and alternative delivery options such as in-store pick-up, which digital assistants can provide. Should they have questions regarding returns, replacements or anything else, digital assistants can respond instantaneously, rather than forcing the consumer to trawl through the website for FAQs or having to ring up or tweet customer services.

Regenerating the high street

AI in retail still has massive potential for growth – there is no doubt it will have a similar impact on brick-and-mortar as it has done online, bringing new levels of personalization to this space. A report from Global Market Insights found that AI in retail was valued at $650 million in 2017 and predicted it will reach $8 billion by 2024.

We’re also starting to see the use of digital employees on the shop floor, which can provide customers with everything they need for an outstanding shopping experience. Delivered via smartphones, tablets, PCs or in-store interactive kiosks, digital employees can analyse and determine the best products for each customer. This creates a simple, easy-to-use experience for the consumer with a familiar form of technology and without the need for human-to-human contact.

In addition, as with the online experience, in-store digital assistants harness machine learning to access buying history and individual preferences while keeping track of store visits. This allows retailers to create a holistic view of shopper behavior and use that insight to create a streamlined customer journey that spans both online and physical stores.

An AI-powered personal shopper

AI-powered digital assistants can offer up new product options, reveal pricing details and provide delivery estimates at the touch of a button. Thanks to back-end integration with CRM, supply chain management, and enterprise resource planning software (ERP), they can also update customers in real-time about personalized items that aren’t in the store that day, when they’ll be ready to dispatch and when they’re expected to arrive.

What’s more, this can all be communicated in a manner that suits the customer – either through text or speech. Unlike clunky, robotic communications of the past, today’s sophisticated digital assistants are naturally conversational, answering questions in a realistic and lifelike manner, which helps foster a stronger bond between the customer and the retailer. As with any member of the sales team, their knowledge bank also expands over time. For example, when a customer asks a question, the info can be stored and retrieved at a later date, improving the accuracy and ability to answer similar questions going forward.

While having a strong sales team is certainly a must, AI can support even the most inexperienced of staff members. They too, can use digital assistants on a mobile device to answer customer questions, find information easily and respond to their requests, strengthening their ability to serve customers quickly and efficiently.

AI also powers “just walk out” shopping – as trialed by both Sainsburys and Tesco in the last few years. This would allow completely contact-free shopping, where consumers could walk into a store, grab the items they want and exit without stopping at a single check out to fully automate the payments process.

By combining the power of computer vision, deep learning and sensor fusion, retailers can achieve so much more. On the one hand, AI can forecast the products a customer plans to buy, whilst sensors and computer vision ascertain which items have been picked up and accurately charge them for their purchases. The fact that the transaction is not finalized until the customer leaves the shop also means that they can browse at their leisure, picking up and putting down different items without having to worry about incurring inaccurate fees. The “just walk out” concept could completely revolutionize the in-store experience as we know it while enabling greater social distancing without the checkout queues.

The new normal for retail

Pre-pandemic, the retail sector was already ripe for regeneration as the convenience and speed of online shopping outpaced innovation on the high street. The COVID-19 outbreak has since accelerated the monumental shift in shopping behavior and a surge in online shopping channels. That said, the industry will bounce back, and with it we are likely to see new means of interacting and engaging with our favorite retailers, both online and in-store.

Enhanced with technology that customers have come to expect, brick-and-mortar stores can build an extension of the online experience, furthering the connection between outlet and consumer. Ideally, and with all consideration for what a post-COVID world might look like, this will encourage other retailers to innovate, leveraging the possibilities of AI to provide a new and exciting shopping experience that does not end when a customer leaves the store or clicks off the website.

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