I was reaching for pizza in the freezer section last week, and as soon as I put it in the shopping cart, the cart beeped and informed me that it contained an ingredient that someone in my household is allergic to. It then asked me if I still wanted to purchase it and offered other available options. Actually — that didn’t happen. But how great would it be if artificial intelligence (AI) could help guide and advise us when we shop for food, or even health and beauty products? AI holds the promise to simplify our lives as shoppers and allows us to focus our time on activities and interests of greater value to us.
Often when we hear about AI in business, it’s a futuristic viewpoint about tasks or functions that seem to be novel and new to industry, customers, and businesses, visions of a future such as the one I mentioned above, or of robots welcoming shoppers and helping load cars. While these may be attention grabbers and a view into the future and may or may not happen, there are current and emerging use cases in the grocery segment, which can make an impact now.
There are three ways AI has an important and growing role in grocery
- Automation of repetitive tasks, and doing this in an intelligent manner that allows associates to focus on other areas. This can range from in-store around checkout and stock replenishment to calculating inventory needs in HQ.
- Augmenting processes and empowering associates, vendors, suppliers, and partners to be more effective and efficient. This can be seen in offer management, product assortment planning, service, and surfacing insights that would not be seen otherwise.
- Empowering shoppers by suggesting what or when they need something based on their previous shopping patterns — even in real-time when they are making in-store purchases.
Let’s dive deeper into applications and compelling capabilities
Some of the immediate and most compelling applications of AI in grocery have focused on the following.
- Inventory management: Predicting purchase trends and patterns, fine-tuning inventory replenishment, and restocking.
- Marketing and offer management: Determining what offers should be sent to whom, and when they should be sent.
- Self-checkout and loss prevention: Allowing shoppers to check out themselves, and at the same time reduce the chance of an item not being scanned, whether by shopper or by an associate.
- Intelligent service: Using chatbots to further empower service associates to better support shoppers and their inquiries.
- Social media: Allowing better brand management and shopper engagement
- Product tracking and management for supply chain visibility: Effectively managing recalls especially.
Examples of AI today
As we scan the industry to see how grocers have been applying AI technologies, There are many apps of AI in grocery space. Here are a few that have been in the news in recent months and years.
- Amazon Go: Download the free app, scan a QR code at the entrance, grab items off the shelves, and exit through the turnstiles
- Sobeys: Working with Caper smart carts to skip checkout lines. The shopping cart identifies items as they are placed in cart, and an interactive screen shows nearby deals, personalized recommendations, and recipes.
- Tally: A bot in Schnucks stores in St. Louis. It utilizes computer vision to assess inventory and keep popular stocked. Another bot will alert store associates to spills and other hazards.
- Walmart’s IRL: Cameras alert associates to restock and remove produce that will spoil.
- AFS: Its solution analyzes POS data to indicate issues in stores that may be impacting sales or hurting customer experience (e.g., products that aren’t easily visible or out of stock).
At Salesforce, we have used image recognition technology and AI to help replenish beverages in retailer refrigerators. In broader retail spaces, Net-a-Porter works with Salesforce to combine 70 data streams into one, and assess all campaigns and their impact in an always-on basis. The goal is to optimize marketing investments and activities globally.
In his recent book, Trailblazer, Marc Benioff says, “Like it or not, artificial intelligence is our future. And the only way it will work, at Salesforce or anywhere, is if people designing the technology collaborate seamlessly with the people using it.”
AI can make an immediate and noticeable impact in the grocery space. These can be visible storefront operations or invisible back-office operations. Many grocers have most of the component pieces already and can start taking advantage of AI capabilities quickly. One thing is clear: whether it’s the automation of routine tasks to do them faster and better, or to decrease load on associates, or to create breakthrough never-before-seen-use cases, or everything in between, AI can make a noticeable impact.
AI is still in an early phase, and shoppers and businesses are slowly seeing its value. As they get used to it, they will expect products and processes to become more connected, predictive, and smart. For shoppers, this will become an important factor for preference and for retailers, its “smartness” will become an important source of differentiation. Meanwhile, I will continue dreaming about the day when I can plan a backyard BBQ event and just tell a grocery store that I will have my bots talk to its bots to do all the work.