Humans versus technology

For the past decade, advancements in technology have disrupted what seems like most facets of the human experience. And with what feels like monthly advances in technology, it’s no surprise the retail industry is accelerating globally in innovation and experimentation. According to Gartner, worldwide retail-tech spending will increase by 3.6 per cent to $203.6 billion in 2019, surpassing the technology spending of most other industries. 

The emerging technologies we’re seeing develop are most often in response to a need for increased efficiency, elevated customer service, or reaching a new, unmet audience. 

With customer support now on instant, 24-hour demand, voice and chat assistants have quickly taken the place of most traditional online help platforms and traditional services. Customers no longer need to wait for information before deciding on their next purchase. Sephora, Louis Vuitton, H&M and many others are using intelligent interfaces to improve the customer experience; collectively retail chatbots are expected to drive $112 billion in retail sales by 2023.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is rising in usage and physical retailers are enriching store experiences by accessing new types of data from RFID tags, cameras, sensors, trackers and devices. Mobile data captured in-store can notify retailers when customers are checking online to compare prices for a specific product, suggesting dissatisfaction with store pricing, merchandising, or environment. Walmart has launched its IRL (Intelligent Retail Lab) concept which tracks inventory in real time, so a customer never leaves the store without the product they need.

Robots have become synonymous with fulfilment as online shopping and returns become the norm. Amazon has been using robots to help assist in their fulfilment centres since 2013, but these robots were not brought in to completely replace employees. With the help of robots, the warehouse team in their New York fulfilment centre is now free of time-consuming tasks, such as walking from aisle to aisle to source items in different departments to fulfil one order. However, alongside Amazon’s robot/human tag team, a New England-based robotics company, Symbotic LLC, has made autonomous warehouse robots that fulfil orders far faster and more efficiently than employees – to the tune of an 80 per cent cut in labour costs, while fulfilling the same number of orders in a space 25 to 40 per cent smaller.  

A common thread across all retailers making good technological advancement is that they are doing it at lightning speed. The aforementioned brands and direct-to-consumer darlings such as Glossier, Allbirds, Casper and Away are solidifying competitive advantages by investing in technology in operational and creative ways, making it easier, and more fun, for customers to shop. 

The human touch

With these advancements in retail-tech comes the question, is it always in the best interest of the shopper? Or has it created a disconnect in human interaction, specifically between customers and retailers?  

Recent controversy has surrounded the debate on whether using facial recognition to determine a customer’s emotion, gender and age is a potential violation of privacy. Walmart and Walgreens in the US are testing facial recognition in an attempt to personalise the display of goods and improve customer service. But relevant questions arise around where the facial photos are stored and who has access to them. And couldn’t a physical employee understand and service an unhappy customer far more quickly and efficiently than a computer?

The next two years will see retailers investing in the growing intelligent interfaces trend. However, state-of-the-art technology restricts the level to which conversational chat, voice and advanced augmented and virtual reality can “humanise”. 

Here are two reasons why:

Firstly conversational AI, which fuels intelligent chat and voice interfaces, does not truly understand natural human language. Conversations with Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are command-based and transactional, leading to fragmented, disconnected conversations and slow response and resolve times. 

Secondly, today’s intelligent interfaces cannot pick up tone of voice, body language and slang. In conversation, there are thousands of ways to say the same sentence, and inflection in the voice can completely change the meaning of a phrase. Most of us recognise this as a shared language that develops over time. To us, this level of understanding is natural, but only between humans. Not between humans and machines, yet. 

Achieving full human language understanding and visual recognition is not easy. In a piece titled The Problem with AI State-Of-The-Art Methodology, Beth Carey, the co-founder and CEO of Pat Inc, writes: “In order to understand a conversation, humans don’t need to have heard every conceivable word and phrase combination (which is infinite). We only need to know around 3000 words for what’s needed for basic daily conversation.” 

Pat Inc has solved the inherent challenges with conversational AI by integrating linguistics into AI, removing the need to continually train algorithms with the latest and greatest data.

If we are to progress from the current state of retail tech, bridging the gap between humans and machines requires retailers to do the following:

  1. Understand when customer behaviour naturally coincides with innovation. Retailers need to analyse at which point of the shopper experience that customers want human interactions and when they don’t. With product information more readily available online, some customers are becoming more educated about their purchases and arriving at the buying stage with their credit card in hand. This is when innovations that focus on speed and efficiency are the most beneficial. It’s when the customer is still at the brand-awareness stage or in the product-comparison stage when a human element can be more effective in creating value and keeping the personal connection at the forefront of a brand’s customer-service model.
  1. Use an intuitive human-centred approach with emerging technologies. Intelligent interfaces and other application types present an opportunity to create a future where we interact with our devices in a more natural, and intuitive way. Today’s platforms are aggregating more and more information on users. In the future, they’ll also start gathering contextual data, both environmental and situational. This will not only reduce the reliance on swipe, voice or message but also enable platforms to adapt to our emotions, state of mind and unspoken preferences. Expect retailers to learn more about customers than you thought possible – our habits, routines, tastes, experiences – taking personalisation to a micro-level. 

Boundaries between humans and machines have blurred as intelligent interfaces have become a valuable alternative to human interaction. To successfully integrate, the new breed of retail tech must be intuitive, valuable and subtle, and always serve to improve the customer experience.

Emma Sharley is the director of Sharley Consulting, co-founder of personalised shopping app Shop You, a startup adviser, a board member of IFAB and regularly speaks and contributes to industry publications. Contact:


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