Robo-retail: Can automation build brand loyalty?


As a mother of three, I orchestrate my life down to the minute. Given the conference calls, Girl Scout events, volleyball practices, dental checkups and social outings, Google Calendar—and let’s not forget the alarm clock—is my friend. This orchestration begs the question: what about the tasks that aren’t scheduled, or the unsung chores that don’t warrant a permanent spot in the cloud but still take up valuable time? After all, those reams of paper towels don’t magically appear on their own. They get replenished because I mindfully put them in a cart, either virtually or in person. What if there was a tool that stocked me up automatically?

Retail’s next frontier

Well hang on a minute, such a tool already exists—and there are many of them. Thanks to connected devices and software powered by data analytics, retailers can leverage artificial intelligence to do the shopping for us. I’m already exposed to and take advantage of that automation in my own household. Every week, I use a site that guesses what groceries I’ll need based on my purchasing history.

The cognitive tool shaves a good 15 minutes off the process, which I happily take back to make dinner, spend time with the kids or just veg out. This idea—of repeat purchases based on shopping behavior—is what some are calling the next frontier for retail: programmatic commerce, or what I call, robo-retail. 

Should we take it that omnichannel retail is not so en vogue? Not so fast. In the same breath that I say, “I love my Guess My Cart functionality, I still prefer choosing certain items in person. I find joy in it. I’m no single-channel consumer by any means, especially for purchases that call for a closer, more critical eye, such as selecting a cut of steak, or a new mattress or pants. No online image can replace the actual experience of seeing, touching, trying. And I wouldn’t want it to.

Retailers’ 360-degree view

Still, consumers expect a seamless retail experience from end to end—from digital touch point to brick and mortar. Retailers having to tread carefully while being mindful of every step of the way represents a precarious tightrope. For my taste, I’m looking for a retailer to act as a trusted adviser, such as the cool friend whose taste I admire yet respects the boundaries of my own decision making. I’ll take a gentle nudge—a sign-up for exclusive promo codes call to action, a subtle recommendations module in the right rail—over a prowler email any day. Think of those political campaigns or couponers that automatically populate your name in the subject line—that is, “Valerie, are you still interested in this snow blower?” 

Seizing upon data analytics such as IBM’s Predictive Customer Intelligence for Retail, retailers can capture a 360-degree view of the consumer to market their brand with precision. By using windows into social media, purchasing patterns and online activity, retailers can predict what to promote, when to promote it and where. This solution offers a goldmine of retail data that has the potential to turn browsers into brand loyalists—based on the pure fact that it’s empowering consumers. 

And for the record, no, I am not interested in the snow blower. Show me the juicer, and then we’ll talk.

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