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A Roadmap for Retailers to Strategically Embrace AI

Great retailers continually innovate to serve their customers. That builds brand loyalty and, of course, drives revenue.

And AI will be a critical part of that, now and into the future.

That was the resonating message from Dave Sutton, the managing partner at Blue Rhino Capital and a leading expert in AI and Transformational Marketing, during his “Speaker Series” discussion at Miller Zell on Nov. 2.

“We’re on the precipice of yet another transformational moment in time for both business and society,” Sutton said, comparing this moment to the advent of the internet.


Understanding useful AI intersections with retail

Sutton chatted with Miller Zell SVP Tina Chadwick about “Embracing AI in Retail,” exploring many of the diverse uses for AI and Machine Learning (ML), including personalized customer engagement, predictive inventory management, real-time customer insights and promotions, interactive shopping experiences and even AI as a store layout collaborator.

AI is often greeted with fear — it will replace humans! Or cynicism — whatever happened to the Metaverse replacing real life? While these reactions are understandable to a degree, Sutton’s main focuses throughout was how businesses should seek paths to strategically integrate AI into the loops of human work.

AI doesn’t become the boss. It becomes co-workers with diverse skills, from data analysis to customer service to improved in-store navigation and checkout.

“It’s a great way to automate mundane tasks, and it’s a great way to make better decisions,” Sutton said. “There are massive productivity opportunities here.”

What should retailers focus on now?

Personal productivity, in fact, is a good starting point, such as using AI for writing and communication tasks or social media integration, both tracking and generative. AI can be taught natural language and to speak in your “brand voice” with empathy. It also can considerably bolster your efforts to reach out to targeted customers with a much higher degree of efficiency than media buyers.

AI can provide solutions, but humans need to ask the right questions and then test, implement and advance those solutions. Sutton believes that retailers beginning their AI journey should start by using it to augment strengths rather than solve weaknesses. And it’s critical to avoid potential pratfalls, such as being inauthentic, impersonal or too aggressive, particularly with personal data.

AI adoption requires purposeful, strategic thinking

A lot of retail pundits speak of a “seamless offline and online integration” — omnichannel — without providing purposeful insights into developing that frictionless shopping path. AI won’t simply show up and solve longstanding issues or a lack of customer connection.

“AI is not a silver bullet,” Sutton said. “It’s not going to solve world hunger. It’s not going to solve problems that you’ve always had.”

Sutton started his discussion by recalling how the last major technological disruption — the internet — was originally predicted to significantly reduce or even eliminate the need for brick-and-mortar stores and human interaction. That proved incorrect, and he believes that AI won’t replace the in-store customer experience. It will augment it.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe there’s more upside and opportunity for retailers to get back to that great retail experience we remember.”