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11 Sep

The Future is Here: How Retailers and Restaurants Leverage Machine Learning and AI


Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are hot topics. But what exactly are these new technologies and why should they matter to you now?

What Are AI and ML?

We humans have long used technology to expand our capabilities. Fire, the wheel, mechanics, computing: each technological improvement has made human life easier and more efficient.

The next step in this evolution is artificial intelligence (AI). This technological advance takes computers from receiving and responding to commands to thinking for themselves.

By combining computing hardware and software, AI specialists aim to build tech that can make its own decisions. Like the human brain, systems are highly complex and powerful. And they absorb and process enormous amounts of data to reach accurate conclusions.

Initially, AI systems were programmed with millions of lines of code with complex rules and decision trees. And early versions of AI – think Google Translate – didn’t always give the best results. Something more was needed to enable computers to learn for themselves.

Enter Machine Learning

While AI is the principle, machine learning (ML) is the method that enables artificial intelligence to learn for itself.

By feeding an AI algorithm massive amounts of data, machine learning is used to train the algorithm to learn and ‘think’. As the data is analyzed by the system, it interprets and detects patterns, continually learning and adjusting itself to improve through experience.  

Here’s what this means in practice. Remember having to tag your photos manually in Facebook? That’s because originally, Facebook couldn’t recognize your friends and family. By tagging them repeatedly, the software learned what the people in your life look like.

Now when you add a new photo, the system can guess who’s who with a fair degree of accuracy. Saving you the hassle of tagging every person in every photo.

It’s this combination of technology that allows machines to leapfrog the human mind. Now AI software can perform tasks that are characteristic of human intelligence far faster than people. This includes jobs like planning, understanding and interpreting languages or recognizing sounds. Which is why AI and ML have been applied to workforce management systems.

AI + ML = a Powerful Combination for Your Retail Business

AI-enabled workforce management systems help your business because they’re highly effective in removing human interaction from processes.

They remove repetitive, time-consuming tasks from managers and employees. Tasks that nobody enjoys like clocking in and out, re-assigning shifts, spotting when individuals are approaching overtime or potentially violating break and minor laws.

And, because the information is stored in the cloud, it provides data visibility across the entire organization.

Better yet, the system is accessible wherever your employees are. As long as there’s an internet connection, your people can login from home, at the mall or the doctor’s office.

This enhances communication, speeds up decision making and results in better business outcomes. Allowing organizations to increase their efficiency and, as a byproduct, improve customer experience and employee engagement.

Five Time-Saving Examples

If this all sounds too theoretical, we’ve got some real-life examples of how AI and ML can help your business.

1. Save Manager Time With Automatic Approvals

Traditional workforce management (WFM) systems capture and manipulate data but they don’t think for themselves.

That means managers are still required to manually approve time-off requests or schedule shift changes. If this sounds familiar, you’re not operating as efficiently as you could.

AI can automatically do these tasks for you. By programming a workforce management system with the same rules your managers refer to, the software can approve or reassign shifts for you. Better yet, it can:

  • deliver a list of available employees with the right skill set and sufficient available accrual for managers to choose from
  • identify any potential overtime breaches enabling your leaders to make better choices and save money all while ensuring service continues uninterrupted

2.  Refine Preparation With Precise Forecasting

Humans can only process so much data. Raise your game by using machine learning to improve the accuracy of your forecasts. With immense computing power, WFM can combine:

  • Historical facts and figures – like sales, turnover, profit and expenses
  • External information – such as foot traffic, weather patterns, sporting events, holidays
  • Internal data – like planned holidays or peaks in sickness absence

The more data that’s fed into the system, the more patterns can be automatically learned improving accuracy. This results in an optimized schedule and budget and a better bottom line for your business.  

WFM systems also detect underlying changes and adapts to them. In fact, the more complex the situation, the better machine learning performs compared to traditional solutions.  

3.  Enhance Business Forecasts With Accurate Trend Spotting

With the ability to amass significant amounts of data and interpret them in the blink of an eye, AI detects patterns that humans may miss.

By monitoring data and KPIs, the technology will see spot trends in sickness absence or lateness before you do.

Workforce management systems don’t stop there: they also makes recommendations resulting in a proactive rather than reactive culture. For example, by forecasting absence rates and identifying alternative staff to step in, you’ve achieved a solution before you even knew there was a problem.  

4.  Move Beyond the Keyboard – Advanced Voice Interaction

Typing is so last decade. Particularly now that AI offers complex voice recognition chat systems allowing a more human interaction with your WFM than traditional user interfaces.

Known as virtual assistants, this AI technology merges natural-language processing (NLP) and WFM data with domain knowledge systems. In the real world, this means:

  • Enhanced user-friendliness speeding up interactions and reducing the need for costly training
  • Reminding staff with dynamic shift patterns of an upcoming shift
  • Employees can let their manager know that they will be late due to travel disruption
  • Mobile virtual assistants can remind staff to clock in and out saving managers time and hassle, ensuring payroll is accurate and employees remain engaged
  • Mobile tracking technology can even automatically clock employees in and out as they enter and leave

These kinds of advances help leading businesses avoid and manage unplanned absence and save time and money by carrying out basic but critical tasks like recording hours worked.

5.  Improved Recruitment

Social media is playing a greater role than ever before in sourcing new hires. AI can springboard you in front of your competitors by:

  • Automatically reviewing social media and other posts like CVs or portfolios of work
  • Identifying people with the right skills, certifications and experience for your roles
  • Targeting prospective employees with relevant job adverts
  • Matching the best candidates with open opportunities

Allowing automated software to perform this kind of activity without managerial involvement is a huge savings in terms of time and cost, freeing your leaders to manage performance, improve customer relations or deal with difficult inquiries.

Creating Your WFM Solution

The successful integration of AI and ML with your business systems relies on partnering with an experienced WFM provider. One with skilled data scientists who can develop agile and scalable systems that meet your business needs both today and tomorrow.

However, technical expertise is just one part of the puzzle. To ensure a flawless implementation, you also need to find a partner with significant change management experience and deep knowledge of the retail sector.

Once you’ve found this combination, you can be sure you’re in safe hands.

In Conclusion

Workforce management systems have become a mainstay for effective businesses. With the introduction of AI and ML, they’re set to offer an expanded range of opportunities. But only to those ready to adopt this new technology.

Ensure your business is set to captialize on these systems by working with a consultancy experienced in retail/food service, workforce management and data science.

Find out how REPL used AI and ML to help HEMA reduce their workforce costs by nearly $4m here.

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