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Retailers ramp up investment in intelligent automation

For most consumers, the shopping experience is a lot different than it was a dozen years ago. That’s when Apple released the first iPhone. Now smartphones are ubiquitous, and they’ve had a significant impact on the shopping experience, whether it’s ordering online from our phones or using a phone to check prices or research merchandise while standing in a store. Behind the scenes, retailers have invested heavily in artificial intelligence, the technology that lets computers “learn” and allows retailers to offer recommendations, special discounts or other benefits based on past purchases.

Currently, 40 percent of retail and consumer product companies use intelligent automation. That number will increase to over 80 percent by 2021.

Today, retailers are rapidly becoming involved in “intelligent automation” — a new combination of technology in which automation is driven by artificial intelligence. And it’s an innovation that will change the shopping experience in even more impactful ways than the smartphone has — some obvious and some invisible. Underpinning this significant investment is the goal of increasing operational agility and providing better experiences to remain competitive in a rapidly transforming industry.

Currently, 40 percent of retail and consumer product companies use intelligent automation according to a new global study released by IBM and NRF during NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show earlier this month. According to the report, that number will increase to over 80 percent by 2021 — a phenomenal increase over a short period of time. Much of this investment will occur either in the supply chain or manifest itself in ways that aren’t apparent in consumers’ everyday interactions with retailers. While the full effect of these investments are yet to be seen, retail is changing in ways that consumers are already experiencing. Imagine shopping online at a retailer that has thousands of products and adds hundreds or even thousands of new ones each day. Using intelligent automation, retailers are personalizing the experience, sifting through reams of data to create offering specifically for each customer.

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In stores, interactions with intelligent automation will become the norm in a few years. The technology is already helping retailers improve in-store shopping by using data to ensure that the right products in the right sizes are in the right stores. It does so by allowing retailers to look through reams of data and spot new developments or emerging trends that would be impossible for a human to pick up on.

Of course, this is not just about machines and software. Bindu Thota, vice president of technology at online retailer Zulily and part of a panel that discussed the NRF/IBM report at NRF 2019, said her company uses intelligent automation as part of a daily personalization process that “serves up the right message at the right time on the right channel” in a merging of art and science.

81 percent of retail executives surveyed expect to retrain employees in functional areas impacted by automation.

There is no doubt that intelligent automation will change how some people work. According to the study, 81 percent of retail executives surveyed expect to retrain employees in functional areas impacted by automation. That includes training associates to focus more on customer experience while moving them away from routine activities like stocking shelves or taking inventory. In other cases, it means training inventory planners in how to use intelligent automation tools to allocate merchandise more effectively. As we move into the future of technology-enhanced retail, retail employees will retain a critical role in delivering a high-quality customer experience to consumers everywhere.

To discover more about how intelligent automation will revolutionize retail, explore the full study from NRF and IBM: “The Coming AI Revolution in Retail and Consumer Products.”

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