The Synergy of IoT and AI to Revive Retail During COVID Crisis



While COVID-19 shackled the world, how AI and IoT be instrumental in changing the face of retail?

The retail industry is no longer inundated with traditional brick and mortar shops. Thanks to advances in AI (artificial Intelligence) IoT (Internet of Things), today’s retail sector is going digital. This shift gained momentum when COVID-19 took the world by storm in March, resulting in nation-wide lockdowns and social distancing. Forbes reports that E-commerce and online shopping saw an increase of 146% in online retail orders as of April 21, 2020, when compared to the same period in the previous year.

While e-commerce’s growth has accelerated by “four to six years,” according to a recent report published by Adobe indicated that on the ground retailers are now embracing digital-first approaches to acclimate to the new norms of social distancing and minimized contact. So to adapt to the changes, retailers are turning towards leveraging AI and IoT tools to succeed in post-COVID-19 times.

Retail has always found itself in a dilemma with constantly changing trends while struggling to stay afloat via downsizing, cost-cutting strategies. The confluence of AI and IoT is redefining the way businesses used to perform earlier. Further, as the market is shifting focus from selling products to selling customer experiences, the retail industry must be poised for this disruption to achieve the same. Thanks to AI and IoT, retail is now empowered, with the capacity to A/B test and provide real-time recommendations in physical space, thus lying in parallel to e-commerce stores.

Moreover, with the demand to recognize the customers’ expectations and desires and take measures to align the stores with those, retailers shall not reap higher profits but also boost customer loyalty and revenue. Using an extensive AI system, along with IoT data from connected devices, retailers can have an advantage over their competitors. By automating tasks, sorting through data with superior levels of speed and accuracy, and making connections between data to enhance the online and in-store experiences, AI is already playing a crucial role in this industry.

Now, AI can help retailers in leveraging real-time data coming from IoT sensors to know when a product is going out-of-stock or what customers have bought that day.  Using radio-frequency identification (RFID) based cameras, the stores will be equipped with live video surveillance. This can allow retail managers to observe and study the buyers’ behavior like what products and brand gets picked up most of the time, time spent per aisle. Based on this data, alerts can also be issued for product replenishment needs; sale forecast can be done about the next busy days or rush hours. This data will also help identify the most popular products from specific consumer groups, and give customized discounts to the customers on those products. Currently, we also have smart carts that can determine what a person puts into a shopping cart. E.g., Caper produces smart carts, featuring computer vision image-recognition capabilities and built-in sensors. It can display panels on the handle, give people live updates about promotions as they move through a store.

Studies show that on average, people lose 12 minutes trying to find a place to park at a shopping mall. However, IoT in retail could tackle that issue, using AI. When an oncoming car approaches a parking lot, overhead sensors could gather data about current occupancy levels and instruct drivers to see digital signs that guide them to the closest available parking. Meanwhile, Auchan Retail Portugal, which houses a network of 34 supermarkets and hypermarkets across the European country, announced it would deploy a fleet of autonomous robots for optimized shelf monitoring.

These autonomous robots will circle around the stores up to three times daily to capture photos of every shelf and aisle. The captured photos are then digitized at scale with computer vision and IoT and then converted into reports with actionable insights for store staff to act upon. The reports delivered through a mobile app will boost store employees’ efficiency in managing, prioritizing, and resolving shelf issues. Using beacons, now AI can also help in self-checkout, through computer vision. Overall, these are the ways how AI and IoT together are changing the retail sphere and will continue to do so post COVID-19.