Use of AI and Voice Automation in Retail Grows

Technology helps retailers create a personalized, frictionless shopping experience.

February 04, 2021

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The power of artificial intelligence, machine learning and data is proliferating as consumers quickly shift from in-store shopping to e-commerce, reports, and shoppers expect retailers to adopt the technology that gives them a personalized, frictionless experience.

Technology was the hot topic at last week’s virtual FMI Midwinter Executive Conference, with industry leaders and startup companies discussing what works now and what is on the horizon. An important topic underpinning many of the discussions was artificial intelligence.

During a session on redefining AI strategy, Milen Mahadevan, president of Kroger-owned data company 84.51°, said advanced AI systems allow companies to understand what’s happening in their business and why it’s happening and then use that data to help create that seamless customer experience.

“The pandemic that we’ve all experienced became a strategic imperative for every organization to leverage data, analytics and artificial intelligence to make things better,” Mahadevan said. “Ultimately, almost everything can be improved by leveraging data.”

Fresh food has become an important differentiator in the grocery space, and Afresh Technologies CEO Matt Schwartz shared how his company’s technology offers a “fresh first” approach. The benefits include employee satisfaction from working with a tool that’s the perfect fit for the job, increasing profitability by reducing shrink, boosting top-line sales and giving customers fresh, in-stock food options, he said.

Joe Smirlies, head of product at technology provider Invatron, touched on differentiation through fresh food and the need to optimize fresh operations through better understanding of demand. According to Smirlies, a strong fresh intelligent forecast must be uniquely developed and should be sensitive, dynamic and focused so retailers can strike the correct balance between shrink and maximizing sales.

“Merchants need to be creative and figure out how to attract customers with fresh. We also know that data needs to flow throughout the organization seamlessly and [record] not only what worked, but also what didn’t work, and then learn from that and leverage it for continuous improvement,” Smirlies said.

Another AI-based technology making in-roads in food retail is voice assistance, which is becoming more important as the trend toward digital shopping grows, said Jon Stine, executive director of Open Voice Network. Voice assistance offers a hands-free and germ-free experience for shoppers.

Voice hasn’t yet picked up as much steam in the U.S. as it has in other parts of the world, but it’s expected to grow. Stine explained that voice can be a strong tool for humanizing and personifying your brand.

Automation also was a hot topic during the conference. Today’s grocers and foodservice outlets are automating everything from e-commerce order picking to data exchange among partners to increase both efficiency and profitability. One example is Shelf Engine, a technology that uses AI-forecasting and POS data to automatically create the perfect order.

According to co-founder Stefan Kalb, Shelf Engine’s technology can help grocers strike a balance between minimizing shrink and maximizing sales while simultaneously freeing up employees to focus on other store activities.

Taking automation one step further is Simbe Robotics, maker of the grocery robot Tally. CEO Brad Bogolea explained how robots can help boost shelf intelligence by capturing information at a higher frequency, higher fidelity and lower cost. Robots can offer targeted restocking information to store teams and third parties, evaluate the state of store planograms, and ensure price tags are correctly placed, all in support of improving overall in-store execution.