How the Intelligent Retail Experience became a survival strategy in COVID-19
In October 2019, Neal Analytics was asked to participate in a special project in partnership with Microsoft and Intel. We were to build the retail store of the future made possible today using Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services powered by the Azure Cloud and the Azure Stack Edge. This store of the future would be unveiled at Microsoft’s Ignite Conference in November. We built out a mock store that included a product locator kiosk that showed the customer where exactly in the store they could find the product using voice recognition. If the customer was a member of the store’s loyalty program the kiosk would recognize the customer using facial recognition and provide a personalized interaction with product recommendations.
The store also included:
- Customer travel pattern recognition to understand where customers walked around the store
- A real-time customer counter
- Void detection to identify stockouts on shelves
We even built an application that could be used on a Surface Pro tablet. This application gave store clerks the functionality to:
- Answer customer questions by quickly pulling up detailed product information
- Complete a sale using RFID tags, eliminating the need for a Point of Sale station
- View operational data points such as customer traffic, stock levels, store sales, and inventory gaps on shelves
Watch this video to learn how Microsoft Azure, Intel, and Neal Analytics worked together to build the Intelligent Retail Experience (June 2020)
We called our store the Intelligent Retail Experience , and it was a wild success. At the Ignite Conference the line to enter our store was at times thirty people long. The Intelligent Retail Experience was so popular, Microsoft and Intel asked us to present it at the National Retail Foundation’s Big Show in January and take it on a six-city world tour at the beginning of 2020. I personally presented the Intelligent Retail Experience in New York, London, and Seoul.
As I was traveling all around the world, I started hearing about a flu-like virus in China that was rapidly developing into an epidemic. By the time I arrived in Seoul in late January the first detected case of this virus showed up in my hometown in the US, and the first US fatalities of the virus occurred in a nursing home next door to my church. My own trip home from my leg of the world tour had long layovers in Hong Kong and Tokyo and in the next couple of weeks, we had all been introduced to what we have all come to know as COVID-19.
By early March my state and other states started putting in place stay-at-home orders and all non-essential businesses shut down to allow their employees to stay at home and try to slow the transmission of COVID-19. I won’t go through a detailed timeline of what has happened from early March until today, because we have all be living it first-hand. As we phase out of lockdowns, businesses are slowly starting to open and recover from lost business. We also must change how we operate to protect our employees and customers.
The next generation of retail
I have worked in technology most of my career and predominantly in retail technology. What I have come to learn in all of this time, is that in times of economic turbulence, retailers are among the first to feel the effects and fall into three categories:
- The retailer is already economically fragile and will not be able to weather the storm
- The retailer weathers the storm by cutting costs, releasing employees, and scaling back products and services.
- The retailer invests in its operations to provide new or special services and invest in innovation to differentiate themselves and thrive.
I want to address the third category of retailers.
3 retail trends to innovate and thrive in 2020
Leading into NRF this year Shelley Bransten, Corporate Vice President, WW Retail and Consumer Industry at Microsoft described the top three trends for retail in 2020 as being:
- Clickstream to brickstream: Transforming the store by bringing the best of digital and in-store together, consumers expect any engagement with a retailer to be seamless.
- AI drives ROI: AI is going to be a big one again this year, especially when we think about that seamless experience and being able to personalize products, promotions, and experiences.
- Last click to last mile: A laser focus on last-mile delivery to meet the consumer demand for speed and transparency.
Bransten certainly could not have foreseen how the rest of 2020 would play out, but her prediction of these three trends could not be any more on point or necessary for retailers surviving 2020.
At NRF 2020, in January, we saw these three trends as ways to innovate, gain a competitive edge, and differentiate yourself from the rest of the industry. Now, these are the things retailers need to do to stay in business.
Modifying Bransten’s 3 retail trends for COVID-19
I believe that if you had a conversation with Bransten today she may modify the themes she identified earlier this year to something like the following:
- Clickstream to brickstream: Transforming the store by bringing the best of digital and in-store together, consumers expect to efficiently locate the goods they are seeking, effectively get answers to their questions and engage with the retailer with as little contact and proximity as possible.
- AI drives ROI: AI is going to be a big one again this year, especially when we think about that seamless experience and being able to personalize products, promotions, and experiences. I guess this one stays the same!
- Last click to last mile: Providing the customer with a seamless remote shopping experience that results in concierge-style delivery or the store pick up.
Clickstream to brickstream: Enhance efficiency and safety
If we look at the clickstream to brickstream concept as it relates to the Intelligent Retail Experience, the technology that we employed achieves this trend. Our store of the future available today included the interactive kiosk that I described earlier allowing the customer to locate the item that they desire to purchase without interacting with a store employee. We also had an interactive mirror that allowed the customer to see what various products (apparel, eyewear, make up, etc.) would look like without having to physically try on the product. As we get used to social distancing and having to clean everything after someone has touched it, these two technologies alone become must-haves for retailers.
AI drives ROI: Meet demand and reducing stock-outs
For the AI drives ROI concept, void detection immediately jumps to mind. Imagine you are a grocery store owner and your staff only restock your shelves twice a day, usually in off-hours, so that you are not impeding your customer’s shopping. This means for popular items that sell out from the shelf, you will have hours of missed sales opportunity until you restock from your back-room inventory. With void detection, your store manager can receive an alert the moment you run out of shelf inventory and send someone to replenish stock right away.
Last click to last mile: eCommerce and curbside pickup
Finally, for the last click to last mile concept, I will draw from a different project that we have been working on detecting license plates. Imagine if you will, a shopping experience where the customer makes an order online but because they want the items today, they choose a pickup at store option and enter their license plate as part of the checkout details. In the time that the customer completes their order and drives to the store, store staff can select and package the customer’s order. When the customer arrives at the store a camera detects the customer’s license plate and alerts store staff to the arrival of the customer. The store staffer can deliver the order to the customer’s car with little to no interaction or physical contact.
Intelligent Retail as the new (or next) normal
In 2019, Amazon introduced the “Go Store” a convenience style store where the registered customer could select items and walk out the door without stopping by a cashier. The customer was charged and Amazon, using their own proprietary software and detection technology could keep track of inventory and register the sale. The Go Store was considered revolutionary and to some retailers the holy grail of shopping experiences.
With Intelligent Retail Experience technologies, we have rivaled the Go Store with one major difference. Microsoft and Intel have made the underlying code to replicate or customize the shopping experiences I described, on GitHub, openly available for anyone to use.
We at Neal Analytics have also taken that underlying code and created complete solutions that can be customized and quickly deployed to retailers at surprisingly low cost. We want to ensure that these technologies are accessible for retailers at every stage of transformation. The industry is evolving and it’s clear that the Intelligent Retail Experience is the new standard.
For more information on how Neal Analytics can help you deliver the shopping experience of tomorrow today, or quickly retool your retail operations to comply with COVID-19 regulations, contact a member of our team here.
Learn more about intelligent retail:
These demos were recognized as a Bronze Stevie Winner by the International Business Awards in the 2020 Live Events award category for Brand & Experiences – Exhibition Experience.
Watch this video on to learn more about the benefits of the Intelligent Retail Experience hybrid environment, and how the solution uses the power of Intel processors and Azure Stack Edge to deliver a more personalized customer experience with real-time information.
Want to see the “Retail of the Future” demo from Ignite 2019? You can find it here
This article was also published on LinkedIn.