Robots are taking over retail, well not quite. There has been much talk about robots taking on human roles within retail. Whilst this seems like an incredible innovation and still very futuristic, IBM Watson, the supercomputing power behind Pepper, the high profile robot with linguistic talents is one of several technologies such as advanced voice-recognition, data analytics, cognitive systems and automation that are going to transform our experience of shopping. What can be a painful drag, will, thanks to these advances, become more convenient and satisfying, whichever way we shop.
Get right to the point
When you go online to shop for a new coat the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence means you won't immediately be confronted by a bewildering range that takes hours to trawl through and ends up making you unhappy with your indecisiveness.
You will actually get what you want, because the cognitive power of IBM Watson will narrow down those baffling choices to a manageable, time-saving series of options, having very quickly learned your tastes, preferences and habits, size, colour and brand preferences to develop an accurate digital profile of you as a distinct individual. Once the technology knows you, like a good friend, it can offer you bolder choices. Your appetite for clothing risk can be simplified to a slider on bar, gauging your willingness try something new, this could range from the extreme "wear custard yellow shoes" or stick with your tried and trusted brogues.
The technology can even adapt to the size-variations between brands and make recommendations on the basis of the predicted weather if you let it know you are off walking in Slovenia or attending a wedding in New Brunswick.
Say what you want
These cognitive capabilities can be combined with what might seem a simpler level of recognition - that of our voices. It is true that voice-recognition is already with us in Apple Siri, Google Home and Amazon Alexa.. Once voice-recognition really takes off, it will remove much of the drudgery from online ordering. We are entering an era where our voices will be used to guide technology to make our purchases, welcome to Voice Commerce. Those of us with no appetite for manually checking off what we need from thousands of grocery items will no longer have to use our fat, clumsy fingers to compile lists or even to log on. And once in a store, voice-recognition will allow us to use devices, including our own smartphones, to find out what is in stock, where it is and how to order it.
Automation takes it up a gear
Go a step further and automation will take care of all routine ordering, so that we need never be caught with our trousers down because the loo roll wasn't ordered. Gauging what we use on a daily basis, how quickly we get through it and accommodating every quirk and seasonal variation, cognitive systems will make these decisions for us and automate the process of creating a virtual shopping list at the right time, automation will only require a voice-command for a shopping list to be approved and ordered from an online grocer. It can even synchronise with electronic diaries to recognise holidays and avoid pointless deliveries.
The cannier retailers are going to network all these capabilities into what they offer us in their stores. Buying online is a plodding process, but in a store we definitely want a real, human experience that gives us a sense of satisfaction when we leave.
Bringing it all together
They will do so by using clever software and developments in RFID scanning technology so they know where all their stock is, whether on a shelf, in a warehouse or being driven around in a van. The advantage to the consumer is that this makes it possible to go online, order a new folding table or pair of trousers and be able to pick them up from a store either later that day or the following.
This is true omni-channel retail - the frictionless experience that means a shopper does not have to stand in a store with their hands on their hips, frustrated that the right size or colour is not in stock and nobody knows when it will be.
Not only can the store staff tell the customer with confidence it will be available tomorrow, they already know the customer from the profile on the tablet they are holding and can perhaps offer meaningful and relevant discounts in recognition of their loyalty.
These are exciting times in retail, but we need not worry too much about the march of the robots. What we should embrace are all the new technologies that will make shopping so much easier and convenient.