Much of the buzz about the potential for artificial intelligence to transform retailing has little to do with reality. Here are some insights into how retailers can use AI today, and how to avoid getting sucked into hype-driven initiatives.

Luke Starbuck, vice president of marketing, Linc Global

Luke Starbuck, vice president of marketing, Linc Global

Like other groundbreaking technologies that have risen in the past few years including Cloud, Big Data and IoT, the term Artificial Intelligence is currently in the midst of a what analyst firm Gartner deems as the hype cycle, where AI is more of a buzzword—and the buzz can be wildly out of sync with reality. Countless stories tout AI’s potential to replace humans in retail, with the arrival of technology that will outpace human intelligence and forever change retail as we know it.

Because of predictions like these, there is a huge gulf between the media hype surrounding AI and its true capabilities in today’s retail environment. Although AI has a lot of near-future potential and promise, retailers need a clear line of sight into what is possible now, in order to have realistic expectations of AI implementations.

What Can It Do – Today?

In today’s retail landscape, it’s all about the customer. As shopper expectations continue to rise, retailers must cope with new demands for delivering a personalized customer experience, with expert assistance 24×7, and AI can help meet these expectations. In fact, one of the greatest uses for AI in retail today is to enhance customer service. For example, the current applications of AI and machine learning help brands automate their customer service to reduce the need to manually answer questions surrounding shipments, returns and more, while also providing immediate customer service and even contextual upselling opportunities.

Before adopting a solution, shine some light into the black box and make sure you understand the real-world impact a solution delivers.

However, it’s important to recognize that AI can’t immediately turn your business into a data-driven machine like Amazon. These processes take time to collect data and learn about your business and customers, and require human expertise to make sense of it all as it applies to your brand. As such, it’s vital that executives are willing to take their time and choose solutions that will offer real results in the short term and long term as it learns, grows and becomes better equipped to serve customers.

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Is AI The Complete Answer to All of Retailers’ Woes?

It’s important to understand the harm in blindly buying into the AI hype. For example, some retail executives are investing in expensive AI initiatives that cause significant organizational shake-ups just because the solution claims to include Artificial Intelligence. This is exacerbated by a fear of falling behind the rest of the industry, and even more so by the threat of Amazon cannibalizing a retailer’s business.

However, it’s essential that executives get clear on the difference between a hyped AI solution, and a solution created to solve real business challenges, which uses AI to improve results. As a best practice, before adopting a solution, shine some light into the black box and make sure you understand the real-world impact a solution delivers and how AI contributes to results.

How About AI in Voice?

With the rapid growth of voice platforms, brands have the opportunity to further utilize AI via Alexa, Google Assistant and other voice solutions. According to Juniper Research, 55% of all U.S. homes will have a voice assistant device by 2022. Between Alexa being able to learn your voice and Google introducing continuing conversations, the technology is getting even easier to use as platform-developers continue to invest in establishing their dominance. Though these platforms will only deliver answers and assistance on specific requests today, the boundaries are constantly expanding into new areas.

This is fertile ground for retailers to make informed decisions in order to utilize voice platforms for customer service. For a busy mom, being able to ask Alexa to “ask Carter’s when the T-shirt will arrive?” and immediately get an answer of when it shipped, where it is and when it will arrive, can be the difference between shopping at Carter’s again or trying elsewhere.

What About Chatbots and the Human Connection?

As the industry changes, customer care automation has rapidly grown as an initiative. This naturally leads companies to ask, “What’s the role of the customer service team in the new era of customer care automation?” Despite the obligatory knee-jerk fear of being replaced (or destroyed) by computers and robots, this technology will assist customer service teams, not replace them. By answering standard “Where Is My Order?” questions automatically and instantly, it allows teams to focus on more involved inquiries that AI solutions can’t yet answer, as well as the opportunity for the customer care team to elevate the level of service it can provide customers. AI-enabled solutions can also provide more contextual information to a customer service agent, so that representatives can be of the greatest help in the shortest time.

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In the era of “AI-Washing” and the “Age of Amazon” it’s important for retailers to truly understand AI’s current capabilities and differentiate this from the future possibilities. Choosing to adopt AI is an important, and perhaps essential step in today’s retail landscape. However, believing that AI can solve all problems at the moment will only lead to false expectations and problematic rollouts. Therefore, ask questions, do research and make sure that your business is implementing AI in a way that will continuously benefit and grow your brand for years to come.

Linc’s customer service technology uses artificial intelligence to automate responses to customer inquiries and to provide product recommendations on e-commerce sites.