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Artificial intelligence at retail

AI capabilities for retail are growing, and now is the time for experimentation and strategic investments.

Walgreens is using it to streamline vaccine scheduling, and CVS to fill prescriptions remotely. Walmart is leveraging it for negotiations with equipment suppliers, and Kroger for personalizing employee training

The “it” is artificial intelligence, and usage is growing across retail businesses, in areas ranging from operations to customer service. AI has been prominent in the general news lately with the emergence of the generative AI tool ChatGPT. Meanwhile, some high-profile technology leaders have warned about societal risks from uncontrolled further development of AI. 

Food and drug retailers, however, are staying focused on business-specific applications. They are mulling which investments to make today and what the future may hold. I aimed to get a better understanding of AI’s future at retail by asking both ChatGPT and a “human” technology expert. You’ll find out in this column which of those two sources gave me the most insightful responses. 

[Read more: Course correction]

Asking AI What’s Ahead 

I asked Chat GPT about the future uses of AI for supermarkets and drug stores. Chat GPT quickly returned a very good list of top applications. These included inventory management, customer assistance, prescription verification, shelf monitoring, fraud detection, personalized marketing and predictive analytics.

The only problem was that I had asked ChatGPT about the future. I didn’t come away with a sense of how tomorrow’s uses may evolve or be different from those of today. The result may indicate the tool’s limitations in making detailed forecasts about a future that contains many variables. 

Asking a Human What’s Ahead

I decided to turn to a human for more insight. Humans are still good for many things, especially those who are experts in topics. I reached out to Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology (CART), about what’s down the road for AI at retail. 

He emphasized that “AI is being infused in almost every technology today,” with examples including labor scheduling, demand forecasting and price optimization. Capabilities will be accelerated by faster and cheaper computer processing power. 

[Read more: Retail marketing that drives education and trust]

Emerging Opportunities Include Computer Vision 

An emerging area of AI opportunity is computer vision, which helps support augmented reality systems. 

Hawkins gave the example of a store shopper picking up a package, leading a computer vision system to recognize the item and launch a phone-based digital customer experience or overlay that provides information or a video about the product. 

“AI underlies computer vision, helping an augmented reality system understand what it is looking at,” Hawkins said. “I see this leading to the next generation of smart glasses.”

Voice Applications Will Enhance Customer Service

AI-powered voice applications will further enhance customer service, by offering such things as in-store meal recipes for shoppers, said Hawkins. He expects a lot more voice capabilities in the next year or two, driven by AI. 

Automation Will Advance Retail Operations

AI will increasingly support the work of store associates and business leaders, such as category managers, Hawkins said. These managers would make initial decisions about new products and then AI can take over to determine factors such as product location on store shelves and levels of inventory needed, based on its knowledge of a retailer’s operations.

A Time for Retail Experimentation 

AI has the potential to drive business success and free up employees for higher-level roles. Hawkins did a very good job forecasting the future landscape, and he urges retailers to experiment by making strategic investments.

“Retailers can’t wait five years,” he emphasized. “First movers will start to realize big advantages.”

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