Unmanned retail

This year’s GITEX Technology Week was the first for me in the last four years.

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Unmanned retail Alexander Sophoclis Pieri, editor, Arabian Computer news.
By  Alexander Sophoclis Pieri Published  November 13, 2016

This year’s GITEX Technology Week was the first for me in the last four years. Perhaps it is because of this brief break away from the industry that I found the entire experience to be quite enjoyable.

Drones, VR, and robotics, took the centre stage at the GITEX and it’s great to see how these technologies are really beginning to transform our lives. I’m just waiting for the flying car announcement and I’ll be all set.

One of the most fascinating stands that I came across belong to Etisalat. In particular, the stand had a small section that was drawn up as a mock retail store, albeit, one equipped with cutting-edge technologies.

These included a robot that greeted guests at the entrance, a ginormous interactive screen at the back end of the room that allowed users to scroll through the store’s products, as well as mirrors that displayed graphical info on the product that I had equipped at that moment.

The whole setup got me thinking however, about how easy it would be to phase out the need to have a human attendant from the store.

A robotic greeter, interactive panel, or direct connection to an AR device, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, could serve as the initial welcoming service, when a customer enters the door. Any of these options could help direct the customer towards the product that they desire.

This approach can carry over to when the customer reaches their intended product section and begins browsing.

As shoppers of course, we have inquiries regarding our potential purchases. To this end, an adaptive store AI, equipped with language analytics can help address questions.

If it becomes too technical however, or requires more in-depth knowledge that is beyond the AI’s know-how, then a human attendant offsite can be patched in to answer queries.

Etisalat’s mock retail store also had a large interactive screen at the back that allowed users to search for items in the store’s inventory. While such a design does away with the need of a large physical space to display things, browsing virtual shelves does not always work with all products.

One example lies with clothes. To tackle this, for starters, a dispenser could be placed nearby, which in addition to delivering the requested item from storage, could also produce a sample of the desired clothing. This should give the user an idea of the feel of the cloth, as well as vibrancy of the colours.

A common problem with people, however, is that many of us don’t know our sizes off the top of our heads. By using cameras and biometrics, the store’s AI would be able to analyse the user’s physique and then suggest the best possible size to match.

Of course once in the changing rooms, the need for alterations may arise but these instructions can be noted and relayed to the tailor.

The one area of a retail’s front-end that I don’t see becoming unmanned lies with customer service. While I have no doubt that a robot or AI can engage customers, the nature of complaints is very delicate and often needs a special touch. I can’t imagine anything more nerve-wracking than a faulty product that refuses to work, save for a cold and lifeless robot assistant that just doesn’t seem to get the problem. Better make sure the warranty and insurance of the robot is up-to-date.

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