Robots Offer a New Opportunity to Secure the Future of Brick-and-Mortar
Digital has touched all aspects of our lives, from the way we work and communicate to how we shop. The sweeping effects of e-commerce, with online sales estimated to reach $523 billion in the U.S. by 2020, mean that the retail sector is at the center of digital transformation.
Brick-and-mortar stores have experienced the tremors of online and mobile commerce the most. Physical shops traditionally relied on building face-to-face relationships with customers, and were based on the premise that everyone entering the shop floor was a customer. The advent of digital commerce changed the rules of the game. Success is no longer a result of stocking the right products. Consumers can shop anytime, anywhere and across any device. Moreover, they can browse and research products, prices and deals online from the comfort of their sofa.
The next step for retailers is to embrace the digital era and go "smart." At a time when customer experience is the key competitive differentiator, artificial intelligence (AI) can open up new opportunities to the type of intelligent in-store experiences that can enable brick-and-mortar stores to engage with customers in new ways, fostering loyalty and nurturing sales.
Fierce Competition and Unlimited Consumer Options
The retail industry can no longer be about what you sell, and retailers can’t afford a race to the bottom on price. While events like Black Friday do lead to spikes in foot traffic and consumer spending, these can only be used as sales-boosting occasions rather than the basis of a sustainable and profitable retail strategy. In other words, retailers should do more than base their profit margin on heavy discounting.
Shopping should be about more than just a transaction. Delivering a fun, enjoyable and memorable in-store experience can be the difference between a sale to a happy customer or that same shopper taking his or her business elsewhere. And to achieve this, retailers can find in AI and robotics an invaluable ally.
A Robot is the Retailer’s New Best Friend
Imagine entering a shop and being greeted by a cloud-based humanoid robot that answers your questions and directs you to the right aisle depending on what you're looking for. Now imagine this intelligent service bot being your shopping assistant and introducing you to all available offers, handing you a discount or giving you the opportunity to scan your loyalty card in return for a voucher. Welcome to the new robotics era in retail, one in which robots will revolutionize the in-store customer experience.
Following the implementation of robotics in supply chain management and logistics, as well as warehouse automation, the next frontier is the shop floor and customer interaction. The speed and comfort of the online shopping experience consistently ranks highly for consumers, which is why many more are choosing to shop this way. By bringing speed and convenience to the physical store, brick-and-mortar retailers can benefit from one further competitive advantage: consumers love to browse, feel and try on products offline. In fact, according to a survey by PwC, 60 percent of respondents noted that in-store shopping allows them to have the item immediately, while 61 percent said they like trying on the item or seeing it in person before buying it.
AI and machine learning have reached the stage where they can engage in natural language conversations with consumers to address their needs and solve problems. Reading gestures and facial expressions means that robots can respond to complex voice commands. Equipped with the latest sensor technology, robots process, interact and integrate seamlessly with the world around them.
The key to successful implementation lies in simple, user-friendly customizable interfaces that enable retailers to tailor robots to their specific requirements and the needs of their customers. An open API, in particular, supports the development of apps that add new functionalities, allowing retailers to update the features on robots as often as they need to. Doing so ensures the retailers — and robots — stay on top of ever-changing shopping patterns, seasonal offers and business targets.
AI Means In-Store UX Will Never Be the Same
A happy customer is often a loyal customer who will likely provide a favorable review about their in-store experience and will recommend the retailer. The retail industry knows well that there's no better advertisement than word-of-mouth. By leveraging AI and robotics technology-as-a-service, retailers can offer the in-store experiences that will keep customers coming back. In this way, they'll create a key point of differentiation from both their brick-and-mortar neighbors and online competitors. What’s more, they'll prove that the physical retail experience isn't fading — it’s simply becoming more "intelligent."
Ryan Wu is the deputy general manager of QIHAN Technology, an electrical and electronic manufacturing company.