The BRC, along with our partners at SAS facilitated a roundtable discussion this month focusing on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in retail, the benefits and barriers retailers are facing. The discussion with our members, was led by Sue Daly, Associate Director of Technology and Innovation, techUk.


 

There’s little doubt that Artificial Intelligence is set to become part of the DNA of retailing in the UK. Many retailers are already deploying technologies powered by AI and investing to further grow their capabilities.

Opportunities and challenges

AI offers retailers the opportunity to both radically enhance and personalise the customer experience and to realise significant gains in productivity throughout the business - from the warehouse, to delivery, to head office and online and physical outlets. In a highly competitive market, retailers cannot afford to be left behind.

However, launching and progressing AI within a business does not come without its challenges: getting buy in from senior management (who often do not have a tech or data background), choosing the right partners and finding staff with the appropriate skill sets can all present significant hurdles.

None of this is helped by the hype surrounding AI. On the one hand, there is confusion caused by the fact that AI is an umbrella term for multiple technologies; such as natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision. And a move by those in the industry to talking about AI in terms of individual technologies, would be welcome.

On the other hand, there is a lack of data on the returns to investment in AI, which can make it difficult to progress. In an industry where management are under pressure to deliver returns on short time scales, designing and getting buy into investment in AI can be very difficult. Suppliers of AI technology have a role to play in addressing this, by providing clear evidence information about the expected impact of AI. Across the industry as a whole, a roadmap for AI technologies would help retailers in developing their strategies for growth and investment.

Finding the right skills and know-how are an obstacle, and not just on the technical side. The best applications of AI work alongside other technologies and alongside people within retail businesses. That means seeing the deployment of AI not just as the development of isolated technology, but part of a wider process of change. That in turn implies that the UK needs to develop a talent pool for AI with a wide spectrum of skills.

The economic and political environment

The wider economic and political context present challenges for AI in retail in the UK. Uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU - which has significant implications for data use, future demand and costs of doing business - has made a number of multi-national firm reluctant to invest in AI, diverting their funds elsewhere.

There is also a growing awareness of the ethical questions posed by AI, notably whether algorithms introduce bias in the way customers are treated or staff are hired; how you govern personal data being used by algorithms or prevent customers being showed inappropriate material. Even if some of these issues are wider tech company issues, they present a significant risk to retailers’ brands.

A bright future for AI

Despite the challenges the industry faces, there is a bright future for AI in retail in the UK. Retail is one of the leading sectors for AI applications, and the industry around it will only grow and AI based technologies develop. The key for retailers is making sure they aren’t left behind.

The BRC are working to support retailers through transitions into The Future of Retail BRC Reinvention Retail conference on the 22nd May which is free for BRC Members will provide practical advice, tools and solutions that can help you successfully navigate and innovate your way through the rapidly changing landscape. You will find more information and can book here.

 

 

By Rachel Lund // Head of Retail Insight & Analytics, BRC


UPCOMING Event

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The successful retailers of the future will be those who effectively adapt to customers’ evolving needs and demands around technology and service.

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