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Artificial intelligence could help brick-and-mortar stores achieve a new golden age

Brian Onorio
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Before COVID-19, financial pundits were busy predicting the inevitable death of brick-and-mortar retail stores. But two years later, we Americans are emerging from the pandemic, remembering that in-person shopping is actually something we enjoy doing, and are heading back to the brick-and-mortar stores in droves. Is it possible to reconcile this behavior with the recent phenomenal rise of online shopping?

It actually is. These two trends point to an exciting, lucrative reconciliation that could reward consumers, entrepreneurs and investors — the arrival of artificial intelligence in retail shopping. AI is promising to transform the way Americans shop.

According to a study by RetailWire and Brain Corp, almost half of all retailers have plans to start experimenting with in-store robotics in the near future. Machines can take over simple, repetitive tasks, saving consumers time and businesses money and creating new models of retail work. Even at a time of labor shortages in many retail fields, the U.S. consumer could see a much-enhanced shopping experience.

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For instance, Amazon Fresh stores enable shoppers to leave without stopping at a checkout register. Through the company’s “Just Walk Out” technology, groceries are scanned as they are dropped into Amazon’s Dash Carts, and customers’ accounts are charged when they leave. Amazon is bringing cashier-free tech to its Whole Foods stores in 2022, too, starting with one in California and one in Washington, D.C.

Automated checkout technology is only one of the more obvious improvements offered by AI. Many other applications of AI technology are well along in development. Robots and scanners can track inventory, stock shelves and find misplaced or mislabeled products.

AI can also increase store security and not just by deterring shoplifters when products are closely tracked. AI monitoring of spaces for trespassing, loitering or overcrowding can help direct security staff to solve problems. And AI will be able to tell when parking lot lamps need repair or scan unfrequented places like self-storage facilities and stockyards, where full-time, in-person security is uneconomical.

A worker demonstrates how customers can scan an app at the Amazon Fresh exit to complete their shopping, on Nov. 3, 2021, in Westmont, Illinois. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

But that’s only the beginning of the story. AI-powered shopping can create a much more personalized experience for each shopper, making it as refined to your tastes as clicking into Amazon or eBay.

Clothing chain Uniqlo is already using AI-powered kiosks in some stores to gauge customers’ reactions to certain looks or outfits by analyzing their facial expressions to help them find the styles that suit them best. North Face has used IBM’s Watson technology to help customers select the right coats for their adventures. Beauty product stores such as Sephora are using AI to conduct skin analysis and make precise recommendations about colors, products and application techniques. Lowe’s is helping lost customers locate the right items with its roaming LoweBots.

Imagine other applications that could allow the retailer to offer you coupons and promotions via your electronic device as you move around the store looking at products. Remark Holdings, an AI industry leader, has developed AI-powered tools with retail applications marketing to your personal tastes and floor plan optimization for more appealing displays.

The lockdowns gave us a sneak preview of what a post-brick-and-mortar economy would look like. Shopping online became a way of life, but the experience of personal isolation left us less healthy and triggered a global crisis of anxiety and depression.

Today, people are looking to go shopping again, ready to spend. While the convenience of e-commerce will never lose its value, neither will the need for human contact. AI has the potential to support the return to the stores, transforming the way Americans shop. As a result, American retailers could be looking at another golden age.

— Brian Onorio is a tech executive from the Research Triangle in North Carolina.