Machines Enhance the Human Touch at RBTE

Robots, machine learning, artificial intelligence – there was no need for a crystal ball or even a forecasting app to predict the main themes of the recent Retail Business Technology Expo (RBTE), at London’s Olympia. Yet, there was a definite original twist to the message.

This year the buzz was around replicating the online experience, instore. Bricks and mortar were back in the spotlight, alongside the power of human interaction, albeit aided by machine-generated intelligence. There was a real recognition that, although retailers are now good at selling online, what they are not so good at now is selling in their store counterparts.

Google, for example, was talking about how its analytics can be used instore to assess how and where customers are browsing – and tailoring real-time offers accordingly to help clinch the sale.

In keeping with the zeitgeist, REPL launched the ADAPT suite including a forecasting app which uses machine learning to look at a customer’s behavioural history and identify patterns in a way that humans are just not capable of achieving. It then learns about events that could cause fluctuations in sales such as bank holidays, paydays and the weather and applies this knowledge to future events, resulting in the more accurate planning of stock availability and staff resources.

Artificial Intelligence can empower store employees with the knowledge they need to close a sale. For example, if they see a customer comparing prices on Amazon, many are reluctant to approach them and chat to them about it – they often just don’t have the confidence to do so we, therefore, have to empower them. Yet, why do people still go to the high street? When they are making a major purchase, it’s certainly not for convenience, nor for prices. They go for the human interaction.

However, there is another group of consumers, probably making smaller purchases, who just want to pay and go. Consequently, another hot topic was how retailers can make instore buying more streamlined and focusing especially on creating a cashless environment. Self-scanning solutions using a mobile phone were in evidence, alongside other time saving ideas such as apps to ensure your morning cappuccino is waiting for you at the forecourt checkout when filling up with petrol.

Going back to AI and machine learning, these technologies only work when fed with data – and this was another recurring discussion point at the show. It seems that the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica furore has knocked consumer confidence when it comes to providing personal information. The consensus was that retailers need to provide valid reasons why they want the data and give something back in return.

I don’t think these themes are going to change dramatically before RBTE 2019 comes around. We will probably see even more analytics to drive instore sales and, in response, a way to facilitate more dynamic pricing too. Traditional stores are never going to win out on price but they have to be competitive with those retailing online.

However, I do think that the move towards cashless will continue and this will be the next big shift. Instead of credit and debit cards, we’ll use our phones – after all, they are probably more secure than credit cards and create less fraud. We’re seeing it already with Apple Pay and its competitors, so there’s no reason why the trend won’t accelerate.

And at the show itself? I think we’ll see more retailers themselves exhibiting as technology takes its place at the heart of its operations. Amazon was there this year and other large America brands could make a 2019 debut. Oh, and more robots walking the floor too.