Our Sci-Fi Crystal Ball has told us so….
(As first seen on LinkedIn written by Melissa Gonzalez)
In the 60’s ABC launched a cartoon called The Jetsons, a society living in a futuristic utopian world with state of the art robotic contraptions, holograms and what seemed like frivolous inventions. In the “Jet-topian” world, George only worked about 1-2 hours a day because he was so efficient in his world of technological integration. He had a video chat version of today’s Skype and holograms to communicate, he and his family could 3D print food with their in-house food replicator that could churn out anything from lasagna to dog bones, they had flying cars that transformed into briefcases and flying pods (aka drones) to drop the kids off at school. They had a robot named Rosie who cleaned after them (and would put Roomba to shame!), and they had wearables from head to toe with smartwatches to communicate and smart sneakers to track and optimize performance.
In the early 80’s The Hoff aka Knight Rider, showed us that an advanced computer on wheels, aka a smart self driving car named Kitt, could help him drive faster, fight crime and solve the day’s biggest cases quicker than anyone. Kitt could detect and estimate proximity to people and objects, ‘she’ could tap into computer systems, analyze and pull data as needed, and ‘she’ could gather schematics of street maps and guide Hoff to optimize his chase. And his mode of communication with Kitt was his infamous smartwatch, powered with two way calling capabilities, an emergency button, and could rival that of George Jetson, Inspector Gadget and Dick Tracy.
In 2002 moviegoers were blown away by the prospect and viability of what may be possible when Minority Report debuted - based loosely on a short story and cultivated on Steven Spielberg’s self produced “think tank summit” of scientists and futurists to create a plausible "future reality" for the year 2054.
This tank of thought leaders included architects, computer scientists, production designers and biomedical researchers who envisioned iris scanning and facial recognition like we are beginning to see today with the debut of AmazonGo and responsive digital signage. They envisioned personalized advertising which is just at its infancy of possibilities today, they envisioned gesture-based user interfaces as seen with Wii, Playstation and Kinect. They envisioned voice automated devices like we have today via Siri and Alexa and dreamt up self-updating printed newspapers, one of which we have yet to see come to fruition! Spielberg also believed that just like the internet is tracking us, so will other devices we interact with. “In the future, television will be watching us, and customizing itself to what it knows about us”, he told Ebert in a movie premiere interview. He believed ads would speak directly to us and ultimately we would be part of the medium with which we are interacting and he wasn’t far off.
Today we have dynamic interactive screens in stores that spotlights product details simulating what’s possible if you were shopping online. Brands and retailers are grabbing customers’ attention with animation, sound, and rich media while educating and entertaining them with curated and targeted content. Through a powerful integration of an LCD screen, an optical sensor, a device sensor and cloud computing, in-store signage is getting personal. Sensors are allowing brands and retailers to analyze and determine gender, age range within a span of 10 years and human emotions such as anger, sadness, disgust, joy, surprise, fear and contempt by analyzing facial pixels allowing brands to cater content according to the audience in that moment enhancing customer experience and engagement.
So what seemed far-fetched and even “think-tank worthy,” was actually retail’s crystal ball of predictions for what we would ultimately see today and what we are yet to see in the coming years. With IBM Watson, a leader in artificial intelligence development, what Kitt was to the Hoff in Knight Rider, a sales associate can be to their manager or a customer. By integrating technology across a company’s channels, retail teams can now access a plethora of information. They can read inventory levels in real-time regardless of its location, they can estimate how long it will take for a product to get from point A to point B, they can intelligently guess inventory turns. By being able to constantly watch, track and analyze, retail teams can readily adapt to satisfy customers whether regardless whether they want to buy online and pick up in-store, or buy online and return in-store or buy in-store and return online or reserve online and get same day delivery at home.
Let’s step back and get perspective on what Sci-Fi has taught us. An average person has a limited working memory capacity and can remember up to 4 things simultaneously, and we need to sleep and eat. However a machine like Watson, can ingest up to 100 terabytes of new data points every day. According to a 2016 IBM briefing, Watson can also connect 2 billion locations and answer up to 26 billion API requests on a daily basis. Watson can also speak to a number of other AI systems processing at close to equal speeds, running around the clock.
We are at a retail paradigm where brands and retailers must figure out how to reinvent their existing models. Data accuracy, high touch service, intelligent design and seamless checkouts are no longer luxuries but rather necessities for survival and when done well, for success. Allow me to introduce you to Vicki - a smart vending machine making its mark in the retail world. It’s not intuitive that we would associate the words smart or intelligent with a vending machine, but it’s happening. With about 5,000 orders in their pipeline according to Crain’s, the team behind Vicki has built a vending machine that allows customers to open its doors through an iris scan, a fingerprint impression or a smartphone in order to browse and take a product for sale. The price and details of the product appear on a lit screen above and disappear if the product is returned to its place.
Artificial Intelligence can power smart retailing regardless of the footprint of the destination. Be it a vending machine, a 10 by 10 kiosk or a 2,000 square foot store, customer experience can be elevated and therefore lead to a faster ROI. AI however doesn’t work alone. Brands need to invest in the ecosystem that makes intelligent learning possible. It takes a tracking system like RFID sensors, ultrasound, optical sensors and humans. Machines can’t learn on their own, but combined with human guidance we will see a powerful evolution of retail just as we have with consumerism.
In today’s reality, one can already take advantage of the technology that surrounds us. You wake up in the morning from a gentle alarm on your smartphone because it knew you slept at your optimal 8 hours, and at the same time, your lights adjust and brighten leading up to that alarm so your body naturally transitions into awake and aware mode. You ask Alexa to relay to you your commute time to the office and then ask her for the weather so you can properly plan your outfit for the day. While you shower you prompt her to read your emails and ask her to connect with Maya to read your daily store reports and then you prompt her to play songs from your favorite artist on Pandora. Once dressed, you ask her to connect to Starbucks and order your latte and to contact Lyft to order a car to pick you up outside Starbucks. Before you have walked into your office door your day is powered by convenience, information at your fingertips and seamless experiences. You spend the morning working through your day until it’s time for lunch. When you walk out for lunch, and perhaps a little retail therapy you expect this way of life, enhanced by the benefits of technology to continue. You travel down the block of your destination and see three window shopping options: first a store window that lacks a point of view, has stale looking signage, lifeless mannequins and an uninspiring story. Next you approach a beautifully designed window with inviting merchandising and thought-provoking storytelling, you enter excited about what you may discover, but you receive mediocre support from the sales associate and the two items you are coveting are not in stock in your size nor can be found across their other channels. Third, you enter a store with an experiential journey from entrance to exit. The mannequins detect your entry and literally speak to you as you enter, the information displayed on the store screen is completely relevant to you, the store associates are fully educated on the journey they are taking you on and can answer any product question you may have. What’s not in-stock in-store can be instantaneously located within their inventory supply chain and if the product is not available it can be 3D printed on demand and at your apartment before you get home from the office. Which one wins your wallet share?
The answer to my question above may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to the dozens of retailers closing doors to date this year. Ask yourself to remember your experiences when you shopped those stores. What journey did they take you on? Was it closer to the first, second or last? At the core, people are consumers, but what we are consuming and how we are doing so, is shifting. Artificial Intelligence can help brands better match what today’s consumer is asking for and expecting. The level of intelligent conversations our systems and devices can have are infinite and therefore the ability of brands to re-engineer the experiences they deliver can be powerful if the proper foundation is established to integrate a human to machine to human infrastructure. It can power real time cues for store associates, it can reduce operational costs, it can help brands improve merchandise assortment choices and ultimately it can give customers more power. If you win the customer, you win the sale. Retail Utopia can exist but only for those who understand and embrace what their customer is asking for.