Putting the AI in RetAIl


August 2018—

Let tech improve your customer service and inventory management

The retail world is buzzing about artificial intelligence and can you blame it? The extent man is conquering new frontiers with artificial intelligence is as exciting as it is stunning. What was once thought impossible is rapidly becoming possible. Artificial intelligence has invaded our lives behind closed doors in our own homes and when we venture out to shop. Even furniture retailers now know better than to idly stand by while waves of artificial intelligence advancements wash over the retail sector.

Artificial intelligence often gets a bad rap in science fiction novels and movies. AI, a term coined nearly 70 years ago by Dartmouth math professor John McCarthy, simply means a computer will do things that require intelligence when done by humans.

Everyone seems to be leveraging artificial intelligence these days from the military and professional sports leagues (NBA and PGA) to retailers like Amazon and Target. They’re pouring resources into machine learning and more and more vendors are selling AI tools for the retail industry.

Where home furnishings are concerned, artificial intelligence can come into play by providing a rich, meaningful customer experience on your website, much like what they get in your physical store from a helpful, knowledgeable salesperson. AI can provide that “human” element to your website as well as help with the less glamorous, but equally important tasks of supply chain and logistics management, which have given Amazon its edge.

The success of any furniture store is tied to how well it provides customer experience—both online and off. When you provide exceptional service, you encourage customers to fall head over heels in love with you, imprinting them to your brand for years to come, but when your customer service is rickety and disjointed—incompetent even—customers will flee your store or website without hesitation.

Automation has elevated consumers’ online expectations and retailers can meet or even exceed those expectations with the help of AI through personalization, targeted engagement, user-friendly navigation and convenience. Once you’ve met and/or exceeded those expectations, the sale isn’t far behind.

The right stuff

Artificial intelligence can transform your customer service by using personalized product recommendations. It’s the AI behind the scenes doing the work that makes those Amazon well-timed customer recommendations appear. More than one-third of sales on Amazon have been achieved using well-measured product recommendations.

AI synthesizes a product recommendation model for a shopper, for example, by incorporating parameters like browsing history, popular trends and even past purchases into one mechanism which it uses in predicting the behavior and anticipating the interactions of the shopper. A decade ago this was a technology exclusive to the Amazons and Targets of the world; now that same technology can help you revitalize your customer service.
Look at cart abandonment, a big issue for anyone who sells online. It’s agonizing when a visitor is so close to making a purchase only to abruptly abandon her cart and leave your store’s website. This happens to even the biggest retailers.

But those customers are not entirely lost through AI-aided retargeting. We’ve all experienced retargeting. Using cookies to track your internet shopping and browsing, advertisers bombard you on every page you surf with images and links to the very things you were last considering. It might seem annoying from a consumer’s point of view, sure, but from the advertiser’s perspective it’s smart—and often effective.

A customer shopping for a motion sofa before she left your store’s website can get a reminder of that sofa, submerging her into the appeal of it once again. Artificial intelligence can also help you make more compatible suggestions for similar motion sofas you carry in other styles or by other manufacturers.

Artificial intelligence can also beef up your add-on sales. Say a customer buys a sofa of a certain design, AI-enhanced recommendation systems can suggest throw pillows of corresponding or matching designs. Etsy and many other retail stores are well known for the use of this technique to increase add-on sales.

Easy navigation

Artificial intelligence can help you refine your customer service by enhancing the ease of navigation of your store’s website. It’s sad, but true: today’s shoppers are lazy. We want someone serving us the pizza and the sandwich all day long while we’re stuck on the most beautiful Miami beaches.

Yes, we all want comfort, even your customers. What this means is that no one wants to struggle to negotiate your website. The slightest obstacle and they’re gone. AI-aided platforms parade the right products for the right eyeballs at the right time and place. So rather than customers having to dig through your site, AI systems can ask a buyer who’s in the market for say, a bedroom set, a few simple questions, and then line up dozens of bedroom sets with alternative finishes. AI can go the length of factoring in other larger parameters like what’s currently trending in home décor and even customer income category. It can also serve as a personal concierge on your website. Today’s systems can answer customer questions, intelligently interpret interactions and even understand customer behavior and sentiment, studying the buying trend of your customers which provides a greater analytic resource in filtering your marketing strategy and making it even more potent.

Improve customer service

Artificial intelligence systems can be personally sculpted to improve your data-driven in-store experiences. When a customer shops the Amazon Go Store, for example, the company’s AI technology watches what the customer is shopping for—even billing them before they leave and thereby eliminating the need for them to wait in a checkout line.

Customer service is significantly improved as the customer saves time and effort giving her a more fulfilling shopping experience. You can embed artificial intelligence technology to collect data on your digital traffic, know at which junction customers spend more time, what their likely behavior or propensity would be at those intervals (what to suggest to them at such points) and what point they might leave the site.

Also, you can identify what improvements you can fortify those exit points with so customers spend more time on your site and have higher levels of satisfaction. You can then use these analytics to build a more customer-centric, data-oriented experience in your brick-and-mortar store as well, creating a consistent environment for your customers across all platforms.

Another aspect of customer service improvement that artificial intelligence can help you with is revamping the balance of your inventory management. You’re probably well acquainted with the nuisance of ordering too much inventory while at other times a lack of inventory chases your customers into the welcoming hands of your competitors.

With artificial intelligence, you can reach the perfect balance in inventory management. With a more encompassing aggregation of factors—like weather, predictive trends, potential purchasing rates—artificial intelligence gives you a glimpse into the future and equips you against emerging market conditions that may have otherwise unsettled your operations. This way you can maintain consistent inventory.

There are also other budding AI technologies like image recognition search that have enabled retailers to upgrade their customer service. Using this technology, you can tell more precisely the tastes of each individual customer and personalize your online recommendations.

Pinterest is exploiting fragments of this technology in providing suggestions of similar content for shoppers. Amazon is also at the front of the pack in absorbing this technology, hence you see image recognition well incorporated into the search function of Amazon’s mobile app. Consumers are eating this up as more than 60 percent of online shoppers shop with their phones. This way shoppers are fed their preferences without much fuss while enjoying quick comparisons between similar products.

There is also quick access to reviews and product information as well as ship-to-store strategies. Using the latter, you can effectively blend your online retail experience and in-store experience. Customers could enjoy free shipping giving you a better chance at executing the second sale. QR codes could allow shoppers to access the product information enabling them to make quicker and better decisions more conveniently.

AI can help you create an online shopping experience that wows your customers and it gives you the data to carry that wow through to your brick-and-mortar store experience. The stakes are higher and retailers like Amazon and Target are raising the bar on shoppers’ expectations. Arm your store with the proper tools and you’ll see the results on your bottom line.

RetailerNOW is changing.

Insights Magazine will be replacing RetailerNOW as the official publication of the Home Furnishings Association. With this change, you will be able to find the same great content on the HFA website. All current members/subscribers will automatically receive the new print editions. You can continue to view content on this website until January 2020.

About the Author

Amitesh Sinha
Amitesh Sinha has gained a reputation for inventory software solutions. He can be reached at amitesh@iconnectgroup.com