By Anne de Kerckhove, CEO, Freespee
No matter which sector you are currently operating in, it’s more than likely that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will soon completely change the way you do business. Consumer-facing organisations in the retail, energy, finance, insurance and automotive sectors are embracing automation – not just to keep up with competitors, but also to keep pace with increasing expectations. However, with so much hype around AI in today’s media landscape, knowing the true value of what it can offer organisations – and how it can truly improve the customer experience – is increasingly difficult.
We have all been surprised at how quickly long-standing, established high-street retailers such as WHSmith, House of Fraser and M&S came under existential threat by the rise of more agile e-commerce players. At the heart of their woes lies a failure to provide customers with the experience they want – and need. And that is just as much a threat to online businesses as it is to their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.
E-commerce faces many of the same threats
The Internet is no longer young, and e-commerce has matured to a point where the market is not merely full but overcrowded. As these digital business models evolve, so do consumers’ expectations.
Thus, online operators who don’t keep pace with changing attitudes are beginning to stagnate – and feel the adverse effects of this upon their business. In this way, the digital marketplace shares the woes of bricks and mortar, at a different point in its lifecycle. Savvy businesses must therefore act now — traditional retail has shown us the likely results of any failure to adapt.
What do consumers want?
Where businesses are falling short is on customer experience. Consumers, in an increasingly digital and saturated marketplace, have an increasing expectation for their transactions to be instantaneous, immersive and entirely seamless.
As this becomes the norm, consumers’ needs will continue to evolve – the next holy grail is great customer service that not only meets, but also predicts, their needs and responds accordingly. Only data-driven insights will be able to facilitate this process, with AI and machine-learning moving in tandem with purchasing habits, and instantly identifying – better yet, anticipating – and meeting consumers’ needs.
Who wants to talk to robots?
According to PwC’s Global Insights Survey 2018, which surveyed more than 22,000 consumers worldwide, customers are happy to talk to robots. Brands must convince customers that they are authentic and caring in order to thrive – and though it may seem counterintuitive, AI could lie at the heart of this. AI can increase the human element to customer service – allowing businesses to offer the very best of human one-to-one service, in an online space. In fact, 60% of respondents in the survey agreed that AI can reduce the time it takes to get answers while being highly tailored to their preferences. 
In many cases, AI provides a great solution, and there is clear evidence in the PwC survey that not only are customers perfectly happy ‘talking to robots’ – hence the rise of apps like Siri and Cortana, and devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home – but they actually plan to do so more often. PwC found that while just 10% of respondents owned an AI device at the time of response, nearly one in three had plans to purchase one, and 18% of AI device owners associated ownership of that device with shopping behaviours.
However, despite consumers’ likelihood of adopting AI in the near future, some businesses seem less keen on the technology. Of course, the fundamental problem here is that if organisations cannot meet their customers’ needs – in the way they prefer – those potential buyers will go elsewhere — as we have seen with high street brands. Here, the benefits of AI are clear; it offers far more than just customer service and client retention.
AI does human things, super-humanly
Interaction and conversations between humans and brands become more productive for both parties with AI-enabled technologies. This is because they combine artificial intelligence and data to provide analytics – learning from and responding to a slew of data points in a way that no human ever could. With this analytical insight available, a call centre agent can provide the empathetic, responsive service that customers appreciate – and, increasingly, require.
For example, it is relatively straightforward for a good AI application to analyse the past and recent purchasing behaviours of individual clients, combine this understanding with wider machine learning in various data sets, and come up with rational predictions of future behaviours. This lets businesses plan, make investment decisions, build marketing plans and generally arrange their business in response to these insights.
It’s a win-win: consumers get a customised service, and the business gets a healthy bottom line. The business can quickly and easily customise special offers and promotions to the individual, and clients will be happy and ready to spread the good news on social media and elsewhere — at which point AI can analyse that, too!
Another strength is the power of AI to analyse, more or less instantly, processes and behaviour paths and identify areas of weakness or failure, so that vendors can eliminate these and refine processes to better suit the customer.
Currently, AI offers so many forms and applications, it is difficult to imagine a sector that can’t benefit from it. However, if we take a slightly more prosaic definition of AI as ‘technology doing things that humans do, in apparently human ways’, then any business that conducts substantial sales or marketing online has much to gain from the more widespread applications of AI. That’s because it effectively makes (super)human customer service available 24/7.
As technology develops, it seems inevitable that AI will become part of everyday business in much the same way as the telephone or the desktop computer. Now that we have seen the evidence of what happens to businesses that fail to meet evolving customer expectations, the pressure is on for organisations to embrace the power of AI. That’s why savvy companies are already deploying new technologies that incorporate AI — and are likely to see an expanding customer base as a result.
UK’s Frasers flags possible store closures after ‘near worthless’ govt support
(Reuters) – Mike Ashely-owned Frasers Group on Friday warned of possible store closures after it reviews its estate, as the company said government aid for the coronavirus-battered retail sector was not good enough.
Britain will extend a year-long business rates exemption for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses to the end of June, finance minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday as part of his annual budget statement.
“For the remaining nine months of the (financial) year, business rates will still be discounted by two-thirds, up to a value of 2 million pounds for closed businesses, with a lower cap for those who have been able to stay open,” Sunak told parliament.
“The 2 million pound rates cap … from July 2021 to March 2022, makes it a near worthless support package for large retailers,” Frasers said in a statement.
The company, earlier known as Sports Direct, said the rate cap would make it “nearly impossible” to take on former sites of collapsed department store chain, Debenhams, with the inherent jobs created.
Online fashion retailer Boohoo had earlier bought the Debenhams brand for 55 million pounds, but not its stores.
“Like many retailers, it’s clear Frasers had hoped the Chancellor would use the budget to finally address the much-discussed inequalities between online and brick-and-mortar stores, but once again that can was kicked down the road,” AJ Bell analyst Danni Hewson said.
(Reporting by Tanishaa Nadkar in Bengaluru; Editing by Ramakrishnan M.)
Volkswagen core brand to accelerate electric vehicle shift
FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Volkswagen’s namesake brand plans to more than double the share fully electric vehicles have in total European sales by 2030, the company said on Friday, in a bid to accelerate the carmaker’s shift towards battery-powered cars.
Fully electric vehicles are expected to account for more than 70% of total European vehicle sales by 2030, compared with a previous target of 35%, the world’s second-largest carmaker said as it unveiled its ‘Accelerate’ strategy.
“With Accelerate we are increasing the speed on our path to a digital future,” said Ralf Brandstaetter, who heads the Volkswagen brand and also sits on the group’s management board.
In China and the United States, the share of electrically powered vehicles is set to rise to 50 percent by 2030, Volkswagen said, taking aim at rivals including Tesla to become the world’s leader in electric vehicle production.
“Of all the major manufacturers, Volkswagen has the best chance of winning the race. While competitors are still in the middle of the electric transformation, we are taking big steps toward digital transformation,” Brandstaetter said.
(Reporting by Christoph Steitz; Editing by Riham Alkousaa and Caroline Copley)
Amazon’s first cashierless store arrives in Britain in sign of global expansion
By Jeffrey Dastin
(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc will open its first-ever physical store outside the United States on Thursday.
The world’s largest online retailer said the cashierless store, dubbed “Amazon Fresh,” is located in Britain, in the London Borough of Ealing. It will carry a private UK food brand it’s calling “by Amazon” and will let consumers skip the checkout line when they shop.
The opening is a sign of the Seattle-based company’s ambition to sell food globally and its belief that physical stores are a key way to capture consumers’ high spend on groceries, a category it has yet to dominate.
It so far has worked toward that goal in the United States by acquiring the Whole Foods Market chain in 2017 and testing shoppers’ interests with an array of other formats: about two dozen cashierless convenience stores called Amazon Go, two Seattle-area Amazon Go Grocery stores that are about four times the size, and 10 Amazon Fresh supermarkets in California and Illinois.
As in the Go stores, customers will scan a smartphone app to open the UK store’s entry gates. Ceiling cameras and shelf weight censors determine what shoppers add to their carts or put back, and their on-file credit cards are billed after they exit.
The location, much smaller than a supermarket, will sell prepared meals, some groceries, and Amazon devices, as well as offer a counter for picking up and returning online orders.
(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; editing by Richard Pullin)