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Chatbots are revolutionizing retail

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This story originally appeared on Digital Journal.

The rise in chatbot use is just one example of the AI revolution online retailers are facing. A key consideration that retailers face is using the technology to create individualized experiences to retain customers and drive sales.

A recent study by Juniper Networks indicates that retail sales from chatbots will nearly double annually, reaching $112 billion by 2023, which is a lucrative outcome of the automation of customer sales and support processes. Chatbots are just one example of how technology is being used to create intelligent content and perhaps what is becoming the future of e-commerce.

Online retailers are also investing big in artificial intelligence-driven systems, such as smart CMS, that allow them to deliver individualized experiences, an increasingly crucial part of customer retention and driving sales.

Rasmus Skjoldan, chief marketing officer of Magnolia CMS, discusses with Digital Journal how new AI/ML features in modern technology are changing the way retailers create an online customer experience.

Digital Journal: How is artificial intelligence impacting on retail?

Rasmus Skjoldan: Retail is a seasonal industry, and because of that, there can be large peaks and valleys in customer questions and associated ticket volume throughout the year. This is a perfect use case for where digital transformation can have a massive impact, because digital communication channels and automation in the form of chatbots and AI can help alleviate the pain associated with seasonal upticks in volume.

It can be hard to scale live, phone-based support systems for such variations in traffic, and because of this, customers often have to wait on hold to get help — a terrible experience. Messaging, on the other hand, allows conversations to continue without the customer having to wait around for a live agent, and bot-based automation can take on a lot of the heavy lifting for customers with routine requests like checking on a shipping status.

DJ: How important are chatbots becoming for retail, and what advantages are retailers seeking to leverage from chatbots?

Skjoldan: The biggest retailers are able to automate so much more in this era of digital transformation because they can integrate bots with back-end systems, like an existing CRM or shipping provider. These integrations allow them to remove the agent from a lot of conversations. By assigning common inquiries to chatbots, retailers can remove some of the burden from live agents. In terms of staffing around the holidays, bots can handle a lot of the increased volume, so that retailers don’t have to hire as many seasonal agents.

DJ: Generally, how do customers react to chatbots?

Skjoldan: Customers want their issues to be resolved quickly and effortlessly. If a chatbot is able to accomplish that, then most customers are happy. Frustrations arise when chatbots misinterpret the issue at hand. It is important for brands to use chatbots to cater to the customer’s desire for convenience, while also offering the option to speak to a real agent when the chatbot becomes an inconvenience.

DJ: What are the main limitations with chatbots?

Skjoldan: Many chatbot vendors today are relying on a purely conversational bot experience, and it can be very difficult and time consuming to train these AI models. To circumnavigate this issue, organizations can use conversational AI technology to classify the ticket, coupled with decision trees that are deterministic and far more effective in resolving use-case specific issues.

DJ: How can technology help to overcome these limitations?

Skjoldan: If retailers keep their automation and bots decision tree-based, then the retailers are controlling the conversation. This is a simpler form of technology that is easier to manage. If AI determines that the customer inquiry can be handled through an existing bot workflow, then your customer moves through a set of predetermined tasks instead of the customer trying to have a conversation with a bot. If the customer’s question does not match a predetermined workflow, the back-end software will connect them with an agent.

DJ: What will customer service look like five years from now?

Skjoldan: The customer service industry is already seeing massive improvements in the efficiency of CX through automation, and I believe in the next five years, that progress will only be magnified. Brands will automate more than 90% of their customer service and reserve agents for their most complex issues. To get there, the industry will need more data scientists, engineers and analysts to maintain models and create bots that will ensure a great customer experience. Automation will work towards improving efficiency of service — and more significantly increase revenue for brands as a result.

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IoT + Data Analytics = Store Operations Intelligence

How many times have you visited a grocery store the day before a snowstorm or other major weather event only to find the bread and milk aisles wiped clean? What might be a disappointment for you is also a missed opportunity for grocery stores, an industry with an already razor-thin 2% margin.

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How many times have you visited a grocery store the day before a snowstorm or other major weather event only to find the bread and milk aisles wiped clean? What might be a disappointment for you is also a missed opportunity for grocery stores, an industry with an already razor-thin 2% margin.

Hungry for efficiencies

Inventory management, especially for perishables, is a delicate dance. Too little of it and grocers have lost a revenue opportunity every time a customer leaves empty-handed. Too much of it and grocers lose revenue again, this time from spoilage or having to slash prices to clear shelves. Spoilage is a significant problem — grocery retailers lose an astounding $70 million annually because of food simply going bad. 

Market economics further muddies the picture. A whopping 82% of grocery companies are increasing their stock of fresh foods in response to customer demand so there’s simply more perishables to manage — and therefore more at stake.

To ensure not too much capital is tied up in unsold goods, grocery stores forecast demand and supply based on a variety of conditions, including weather, time of year, and even weekly foot traffic. But as Cognizant as observed, a whole host of additional factors affecting inventory management can drain grocery store revenues.

[Download]: Real Estate Manager Goes Digital

Smart systems

One of Cognizant’s clients, a major supermarket chain, found that working with older equipment also challenged inventory management. 

Internet of Things (IoT)-embedded sensors track ambient temperature, temperature of the food, humidity and even electric current flowing into refrigerators to keep a pulse on perishables. But this leads to grocery stores drowning in data. The sensors cry wolf too often forcing the retailer to waste expensive technician time on every perceived crisis. Such waste happens because too often, sensors do not accurately reflect the whole story. 

Cognizant has shown that data alone is not enough, strategic reading of the data tea leaves also matters in increasing efficiencies. Using the IoT sensors, Cognizant helped the grocery retailer monitor inventory in real time — the pressure on sensitized shelves changes when inventory counts drop — and restock accordingly. Even better, Cognizant’s solution analyzed the data feed in real time, at the edge. Algorithms accounted for many variables including work load, cost of energy at different times of the day, whether the door was open or closed, to recommend intelligent solutions. 

Using edge data analytics and IoT sensors, grocery stores can automate many fixes, proactive reorder inventory and even automatically churn out work orders for technicians only as and when needed.

When inventory management is a delicate and challenging operation, grocery retailers need to be strategic about how they invest precious resources. IoT + edge analytics is a game-changer. It gives retailers the intelligence they need to deploy resources effectively and proactively so they can better cater to demand and cut waste. 

IoT-driven asset management and data analytics will be key to success in the grocery industry. Climate change has increased the clamor for sustainability and less food waste. The timing for smart solutions could not be better.

Read more about Cognizant’s IoT refrigeration solution here.

[Download]: Real Estate Manager Goes Digital

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Punchh raises $40M in funding to augment AI capabilities

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In a bid to bring digital transformation to the brick-and-mortar retail space, startup Punchh has raised $40M in Series C funding, co-led by Adams Street Partners and Sapphire Ventures

The company creates data-driven, AI-powered customer experiences for retailers. Funding will be used to accelerate the development of its customer AI technologies while expanding into new verticals.

Accompanying this funding is news of a partnership with Casey’s General Stores, one of the largest convenience store brands in the United States.

“Consumers expect ubiquity of experiences online and off,” said Shyam Rao, CEO of Punchh in a press release. “In-store retail remains extremely popular and is one of the most powerful relationship building channels ever created. Our platform gives retailers an unparalleled understanding of how customers engage with their brand in the real world, along with the ability to use that understanding to create AI-powered experiences that keep customers coming back for more.”

As VentureBeat reports, Punchh’s products work to “supercharge same-store sales by integrating with existing point-of-sale and ecommerce systems, enabling them to collect in-store and online data that inform customer profiles.”

AI algorithms then optimize these profiles into targeted marketing campaigns and promotions. 

The goal is to promote loyalty which has always been at the core of their business.

While Punchh isn’t the sole venture within the cloud-based customer data management space — SessionM and CleverTap come to mind — Sapphire Ventures’ managing director, president and co-founder Jai Das is keen on the “holistic” nature of the startup.

“Analysts predict ecommerce will account for just 10 percent of total retail sales in 2019, which means about 90 percent of transactions are still taking place in store,” said Das.

This means big-time opportunity in brick-and-mortar retail, with brands consistently looking to better understand their customers, using data to build relationships that translate into lifetime loyalty, and in turn, value for the brand.

“Punchh’s solutions allow retailers to do that in a highly scalable manner, which is why they’re trusted by so many leading brands, and why we’re so optimistic on their long-term growth,” Das said.

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Bringing digital transformation to the apparel industry

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The apparel industry seems like a natural fit with 3D technology, so why is its adoption so slow?

According to industry insiders that have embraced the technology, it’s a worthwhile investment, but the biggest factors to blame are:

  • Experience with the benefits and gains that can be had by implementing 3D applications
  • The lack of a skilled workforce 

The advantages to using 3D in product development are apparent, explains Eryn Gregory, owner of Ergodesign and specialist in the field of 3D applications, and the practice has been growing in the last 3-5 years:

“The need to deliver fresh product faster and with less impact on the environment has mandated that apparel brands take a serious look at how to satisfy this demand,” she says. “3D processes allow fashion brands in particular to make better decisions, faster and with more confidence along the entire development cycle.”

[Related reading: How Technology is Changing The Future of Fashion]

One obvious 3D application for the apparel industry is that brands can ‘test-market’ styles on their websites, Gregory explains, without significant investment in materials. 

“These consumer insights have the ability to impact which garments are adopted in a range and can direct the supply chain to create only what’s ordered while eliminating waste in the process.”

Like many other industries undergoing digital transformation, the need to reskill apparel industry employees is key for the successful adoption of 3D technology — especially since, at its core, the industry has been using much of the same processes for decades:

“The apparel sector has lagged behind its industrial and architectural design peers with the adoption of 3D in large part because of the limitations of life-like, digitally rendered ‘soft’ materials, along with the reluctance of an existing supply chain that has relied on deeply embedded legacy systems and processes.” 

Echoing the sentiment is Idy Lee, Senior Vice President at Li & Fung Sourcing, which provides 3D printing services to apparel manufacturers. Businesses that understand 3D’s inherent value in the sector — for initial decision making, product creation, prototyping and line-planning — are increasingly adopting it. But better understanding and reskilling among front-line workers is key to driving transformation: 

“With the evolution of the technology, it is important for the workforce to understand the fundamentals in building the foundations of 3D and knowledge of construction in apparel,” says Lee. 

Popular athletic brand Under Armour is one company that has successfully embraced 3D technology, using it to cut time and cost with respect to product design and development, and to minimize physical sampling.

And according to UA’s Vice President, Apparel and Accessories Development and Supply Chain Operations Jami Dunbar, it’s a game-changer. “The beautiful thing about it is that there’s a great deal of collaboration across brands. Everyone protects their IP, but we all know working together is the way forward, and the way we’re all going to be able to visualize and make great product.”

[Related reading: How Tech Is Rewriting the Rules of Couture]

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