Automation and AI in retail – more creation, less frustration

The rise of the machines has been foretold for some time now. Often dystopian but always innovative, these visions of technological grandeur have cropped up in almost every, if not all, sectors of business – retail included.

Various buzzwords thrown around by experts have become blurred with fantastical depictions of talking robots and sentient machines. What we’ve heard about time and again, though – and indeed what lies behind many of these visions of the future – is artificial intelligence (AI).

When asked to think about AI in retail, many will think about the manufacture and picking and packing of goods. Amazon, for instance, acquired robotics specialist Kiva Systems way back in 2012, and today deploys AI-capable technology in its warehouses. Grocery giant (and now established tech player) Ocado meanwhile conducts R&D into and has deployed similar technologies.

It’s impressive stuff. However, AI – and its less glamorous cousin, automation – are also having a transformative impact on other sectors of the retail industry. ‘Hidden’ in software, AI and automation are helping marketers better organise, share, and distribute content across the ecommerce domain, accelerate marketing workflows, and evolve brand stories thanks to powerful content analytics.

So, take off those futuristic-coloured glasses, and let’s have a look at how technology is allowing more creation and less frustration. We’ll also look at just one (of many!) examples of automation and AI in action, and examine how retail businesses can capitalise on innovation, particularly in uncertain and changing times.

The lay of the retail land

At the end of 2019, the Centre for Retail Research (CRR) published a detailed analysis of the retail sector. The conclusion of that analysis was that UK high streets had barely survived one of its toughest years to date – 160,000 jobs lost, closures, and shrinking margins for traditional bricks and mortar stores. The analysis indicated that consumer spending in physical stores had been on a downward trend since 2015, largely due to the growth in online shopping. The retail analyst firm also predicted that, without government intervention on things like business rates, 2020 would be as bleak, if not worse.

Unfortunately, 2020 would start off as one of the bleakest yet for the sector. No one could have predicted Covid-19 and its global, far-reaching implications. For the retail industry, conditions have been exacerbated as consumers stay indoors in order to avoid catching and spreading the virus. Online shopping has therefore exploded, with logistics specialists suggesting that online retail rates will double during these unprecedented times.

As a result, retailers will be turning all of their attention to their online play – and there’s an opportunity here for ecommerce businesses to shine. How? By delivering a consistent online experience to engender brand loyalty. Yet with marketing teams downsizing and members working remotely, this may seem a challenging ask.

This is where AI and automation come in. More specifically, this is where digital asset management (DAM) solutions that leverage AI and automation come in. Such solutions can help augment even the most depleted of marketing teams, help create a consistent brand identity across digital channels, and free up marketers to do what they do best: to create, and to create creatively.

Recognition for AI

A marketing department isn’t an Amazon or Ocado warehouse, so don’t expect to see AI-powered robots strolling around any time soon. Instead, AI can be found as an in-built feature in the most advanced DAM solutions, manifesting in a number of different solution features.

One of these is image recognition. An advanced DAM solution will feature a variety of image recognition technologies to help relieve the burden of manually tagging images. These services can automatically add basic descriptive metadata for concepts and objects like stock photography or general lifestyle images. They can also analyse facial attributes to auto-tag images based on emotions, and categorise images of people based on age, ethnicity, and gender. Finally, such services can automatically detect (and then trigger appropriate actions for) images based on things like suitability/questionability, colour, industry specifics, celebrities, and product specs.

Instead of manually trawling through all of the images your brand has in its library and sorting each one, a DAM solution will do this automatically. One less frustrating manual task for the marketer = a whole lot more time for creative pursuits and value-add tasks!

Image recognition and tagging aren’t the only benefits of a DAM solution: other examples of automation efficiencies include scaling communications across channels, removing design bottlenecks, and measuring marketing campaigns; all in the name of improving operational workflows. It’s interesting then, that despite the AI capabilities and automation opportunities, these tools are under-used by many marketers today.

The AI reality

The most recent edition of our annual Connectivity Report found that although optimism about AI was higher in 2019 than the year previously, (up to 56% from 36%), a massive 75% of respondents said they still don’t use AI tools in their marketing.

Adopting any new technology is daunting, especially during such an uncertain period. As such, it’s important that the adoption of any new solution or technology is carefully considered, and supported by a partner who can offer the required consultancy and integration.

Digital transformation, including automation and AI, are redefining how retail businesses work. Unfortunately, Covid-19 is also having a dramatic impact on the operations and profitability of many ecommerce players. Focusing attention on the online domain is one way to mitigate damage, using advanced DAM solutions to deliver a consistent consumer experience and stable brand identity – even during the most uncertain of times.

Contributor: Sairah Mojib, Head of Marketing, EMEA, Widen