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Shopping 2.0: Coronavirus, Computer Vision and the Future of Retail

AI, E-Commerce, News, Internet of Things

Computer vision could provide retailers with an invaluable lifeline and a view of the future of retail as the High Street struggles to come to terms with the fall out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shops that were already on the precipice of a crisis driven by virtual competition are now embracing the capabilities of artificial intelligence to stay viable in the face of towering challenges.

In the latest of a series of articles to mark the launch of our M&A market report on AI in 1H2020, we look at how computer vision could transform the retail space in the coming months.


The computers have eyes

Computer vision is an algorithm, trained using video and images, that can process, analyse and identify patterns. Simply, it is AI that can “see”, and it uses that ability to mimic the human visual system.

Long before any of us had even heard of the “C word”, forward-thinking retailers were using this technology, and the resulting analytics, to improve marketing, merchandising, and overall customer experience.

It was all part of the “fight back” against internet shopping, and as the pandemic brought the world’s shutters down, a renewed emphasis on adapting to survive emerged. 


Challenging future

They may be crucial to curbing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but social distancing measures seem to be diametrically opposed to retail success.

The business model relies on the hustle and bustle of full-to-capacity stores, the freedom to roam and spend, and the relationships between staff and customers.

As we reported in May, the first of a chain of Amazon Go Grocery stores recently opened in Seattle. This new breed of “connected supermarkets” uses computer vision to eliminate the need for till staff or queues, making it perfect for the current climate.

The checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning, said the company in a press release.

“Just Walk Out Technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart. When you’re done shopping, you can just leave the store. Later, we’ll send you a receipt and charge your Amazon account.”

Store layout, point of sale marketing and inventory are all areas already receiving a computer vision makeover that has been accelerated by the need for socially distant shopping.

In the last 12 months, Singaporean image recognition company Trax Retail has acquired two French AI concerns, Planorama and Qopius.

The former is an AI-enabled retail image recognition SaaS that converts images of in-store shelving and space measurements into planograms that optimise space and sales performance. The latter, which already serves clients such as Carrefour, Casino, Metro and MediaMarktSaturn, provides image-recognition software that partners with automated robots for on-shelf inventory management.

The advantages of such technology over the coming months is clear. It will help stores plan displays in a way that is conducive to both social distancing and sale optimisation, respond quickly to changes in demand, and maximise the space in store for customers.

Computer vision can utilise deep learning AI models to analyse videos and identify security threats, ensure people are wearing masks, and prevent overcrowding 

Augmented reality apps can display the price or ingredients of a product from a distance, reducing the need for touching, and making shopping more inclusive for people with disabilities such as impaired vision.

But technologies such as computer vision aren’t just overcoming the challenges of shopping in 2020.  They are providing real opportunities for growth by generating data-driven insights retailers can use to continually improve the customer experience.

The ceiling-mounted cameras in Amazon Go stores, for example, don’t just record what people choose to buy, they also record what they looked at and considered buying.

Analyses of shopping behaviours and the way people make their way around a store can help retailers tailor the shopping experience, while automated inventory enables proactive responses to upticks in demand.

And all this frees up staff to focus on what they do best – providing customer service.


Shopping 2.0

Since the moment Amazon started selling books from Jeff Bezos’ garage, the industry has feared that its days were numbered.

But if the public’s enthusiasm for the lifting of shopping-related lockdown restrictions has told us anything, it’s that people still want an in-store experience.

Not only does computer vision offer retailers the chance to optimise sales while keeping its staff and consumers safe, it has the potential to continually improve customer experience through the intelligent use of data.

Rumours of the death of the High Street, then, may have been greatly exaggerated.


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