In an era in which customers are looking beyond the local store to the global retail horizon, in which their expectations continue to grow exponentially, and in which technology and data are expanding at the same rate, merchants are facing a new imperative.
They must set aside the outdated processes inherited from yesterday’s merchandising models and rethink what they do in a world in which the consumer has control.
That means understanding with a new level of granularity what customers are thinking, and how they’re going to react, before they set foot in a store, open an app, or visit a site. It means treating a purchase as the start of a process, not the end. It means becoming a problem solver and a curator on behalf of the customer, using effective merchandising to spark their curiosity and deliver agile and engaging retail experiences.
Above all, it means unleashing the natural creativity of merchandising teams. That, in the end, is what truly effective merchandising is all about. But creativity needs time and space to flourish. If people are spending their time on consuming admin tasks, they’re not doing what they do best. And that, ultimately, will hurt the business.
So what is the real secret of tomorrow’s merchandising? Time. By freeing employees from the routine and the repetitive, merchants are giving them more time to think and create new spaces for innovative ideas to grow. And that’s where today’s technology is a game-changer. Artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, can augment a merchandising team and fundamentally change how work gets done. Here’s how.
Executing With Precision
AI technologies are advancing so fast, they’re now able to take on many of the routine parts of the merchant’s workload–and do so with a speed and level of accuracy that the human workforce could never hope to match.
Consider, for example, the grueling work of crunching the vast amounts of data that merchants have access to. Here, AI tools can spot sales trends and derive other important insights so much faster than traditional approaches.
Or what about tagging item attributes? Intelligent technologies like computer vision and deep learning can populate huge numbers of attributes at a radically faster pace. And in areas like item setup, order management, and vendor inquiries, AI can also bring new levels of speed and precision.
The key point: When you use intelligent technologies to execute the routine, you buy your team time to maximize their most valuable resource: their creativity.
Analytics are already table-stakes for today’s retailers. AI will take this to the next level, enabling hyper-localized and hyper-personalized curation and segmentation, and creating near instantaneous customer feedback loops.
Leading retailers are already using machine learning, applied over a blend of internal and external data sources, to see retail trends develop all over the world in close to real time. And customer choice models can now confidently predict the decisions a customer will make in a particular scenario, with radical implications for demand forecasting.
What’s more, as the technology develops, innovation will shift up to a new level. Consider how a combination of computer vision applied to store video and the advanced analysis of data from IoT devices will enable retailers to detect what a shopper is doing and thinking directly as it happens. That’s a completely new kind of analytics capability.
Acquiring Strategic Creativity
Freed from their routine tasks and augmented by the power of intelligent analytics, retailers will be able to take an ever more strategic approach to their merchandising. They’ll be able to invest in the creative brainpower that can really make a difference to what is offered to the customer–and how.
Just consider what some of the most innovative startups are already doing in the retail space. FindMine can automate the process of curating apparel retailers’ in-store window displays and endcaps, as well as online look-books. The company’s AI analyzes a product catalog to identify the pieces most likely to complement each other. Similarly, Stitch Fix uses a mix of AI and human expertise to predict the clothing most likely to suit each individual consumer. And Screenshop’s AI can instantly convert a static fashion image into a list of shoppable apparel.
These are exciting new capabilities. But they’re just the start. As AI continues to advance, ever more possibilities will open up for merchandising teams. It’s a big shift. And it’s going to fundamentally change what it means to be a merchant. Powered by intelligent technologies, and harnessing the unique creative spark of their human employees, merchants will become the curators of tomorrow’s customer experience.
Courtney Spitz, managing director of Accenture Retail, also contributed to this article.