The robots are coming — to retail! Innovative technology is changing the way we shop

By Tracy Marasigan, Echo Magazine

Sedona Steffens
Editor’s note: This article is one in a series of stories from the Communication Department’s award-winning Echo magazine,  featured this summer on the Chronicle site.

The robots are taking over, but at least they’ll help you find a cute outfit. 

Retailers are introducing innovative technology with the creation of frictionless retail, a new form of shopping. In stores of the future, this means using technology such as smart mirrors, radio-frequency identification tags, QR codes and lifelike interactions with online chatbots. Although it’s great for convenience, what does it mean for privacy issues? Where do our sales associates go when their jobs are taken over by artificial intelligence? 

Retailers are seeking help from artificial intelligence to aid in faster, more efficient customer service. Have you ever called a toll-free number only to be greeted by a robotic voice, horrible elevator music and hour-wait times, praying to talk to a real person? Amazon is trying to solve that issue with AI chatbots from its Amazon Lex service. Instead of a robotic voice, you’ll hear lifelike virtual assistants: robots — but intelligent enough to recognize human speech and understand you without needing to “press 1 for more options.” 

“Looking forward in the future and tech, we really want to transition people to become more comfortable with bots and machine learning,” says Jenna Wright, Amazon’s manager for machine learning operations. 

You may already have started that transition on your own if you’ve ever queried Siri, Alexa, Google Home, Cortana  — the list goes on. This technology has entered the retail scene. In an Amazon Fresh store, you can ask Alexa where the eggs are, and in Target you can use a touchscreen display to search the store’s ads for the latest deals, all without any human interaction. 

Depending on the type of shopper you are, you may still want to talk to a real person. Ray Riley, co-CEO for Progress Retail, co-created an application platform software that enhances in-store retail operations and learning.

“I think there’s a level to which that will always need some human touch,” he says. Progress Retail’s platform uses technology to improve store operations and employee performance. 

“For us, it’s about the intention of inserting technology into a store,” Riley says. Having a better-trained team and management by using a tech platform like Progress Retail could create an intimate and memorable shopping experience. “[Customers] drove to get to that shopping center, they parked, they walked in. They’re interested in some form of connection,” Riley says. 

Progress Retail’s technology may solve back-end issues in the brick-and-mortar retail business space for those who prefer human interaction. “We could train our team, and we wouldn’t have to invest in some technology that might not be as essential,” Riley says.

Trying to find your right size can be a hassle that takes up your whole day. Would you use AI technology to find your true size? Fit:Match’s artificial intelligence tool can scan you to give you 150 measurements of your body, and it uses an algorithm to match shoppers with retailers, to suggest what size they would be in different stores. 

“Part of it is to revolutionize the whole shopping experience,” says Robyn Carter, head of retail operations at Fit:Match. “We want to eliminate the risk for people in terms of giving them the confidence to shop more effectively online and in stores.” 

A 10-second, 3D 360° biometric scan of your body is all it takes to get your measurements. From there you’ll get a percentage match to sizes and styles from retailers to shop from. Kind of like Tinder, but you’ll know that it’ll always work out. 

“We say anything that’s 80% or higher are the fashion pieces that will complement your body based on your own measurements. That’s where the fashion meets the technology,” Carter says. 

The body scan, or as Fit:Match likes to call it getting “Fitched!” can be done at their pop-up locations or their app. You might be wary of having AI scan your body, but Carter says the data will only be accessible to you and whomever you choose to share it with. “We have it for the logarithms for the data that comes in that we see on our end,” Carter says. “A lot of times they feel comfortable knowing that [their information is] not sold anywhere or shared anywhere.” 

This AI might be a game-changer for shopping confidently, either online or in-person. If you are shopping in-person, having your measurements on hand may eliminate human interaction with a sales associate. 

Now, say the robots do take over: With one in four American  jobs held by teens that are supported by retail, where do those jobs go when these innovations sneak up?

Retail jobs are starting to realign themselves into different positions in order to fit the new needs of retailers. Riley says cashier jobs will transition to fulfillment-center roles for online orders. “Ship-from-store, curbside [pickup] — unfortunately a robot’s not going to be able to take your Home Depot curbside order out to you yet. I think we’re a few years away from that,” Riley says. 

Although this tech is intelligent in different functions, people are still necessary to operate them. Wright from Amazon has seen customer service jobs transition into machine learning positions. “These types of people that work in these positions don’t necessarily have to have a formal education in machine learning or analysis,” Wright says. 

The robots decrease shopper’s human interaction, but also from a sales associate’s side, as well. Instead of face-to-face selling, that position could turn into a back-end fulfillment or an AI operation job. 

As a shopper, how will you react to this tech and AI? Will you find it convenient to walk in and walk out of stores without speaking to a soul, or will you miss connecting with a real live person? Make a choice quickly and silently,  ’cause you know they’re always listening.

The 2021 issue of Echo will be available this summer on newsstands across campus, and PDFs of all issues are available online.