May 2018

Insights from Retail Week Live 2018

"If the retail future belongs to Artificial Intelligence then companies need to pinpoint a special kind of Human Intelligence to direct it"

Drayton’s Rob Seery writes about the insights and conclusions he drew from a recent visit to this year’s Retail Week Live annual conference and how, he believes, H.I, not A.I, will be, at least for the time being, the key to exceptional retail performance.

In a recent article in Telegraph Business Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese internet giant Alibaba, is quoted. “In the next few decades, chief executives of major global corporations could all become redundant,” says Ma. “They will be replaced by robots with highly developed artificial intelligence, because machines are quicker, more rational and do not get bogged down with silly human emotions.”

Personally, I’m a little more optimistic about the – at least, immediate – future than that. Historically, many dystopian predictions about technological advances have just been plain wrong.

But, my recent attendance at this year’s Retail Week Live conference did convince me that the retail world is now at a very clear tipping point. From the moment I arrived at the conference I realised, in the two years since my last attendance at the conference, the pace of technology has moved aggressively forward.

Walking around the vast exhibition site, it felt like every single stand in the break-out area was technology-led. As well as major names like Google, Microsoft and Dell being represented, there were a myriad of specialist niche consultancies – all looking to help solve the retail industry’s array of idiosyncratic commercial challenges, with the harnessing of A.I from a supply-chain perspective being the predominant.

Just one glance across the exhibition space made it instantly obvious how important tech now is to every type of retailer. And that made me realise something.

The successful retail leaders of the future will be required to develop the skillset not of one person. But two.

They will still need to have the one critical characteristic that all great retail leaders possess – instinct. An uncanny ability to predict and deliver what the customer wants and needs; leveraging this emotional intelligence to get the most out of their teams, energising their store colleagues.

And, now, also, the aptitude and hard intellect to harness, embrace and strategically deploy cutting-edge technology.

Many of the retail industry leaders I have supported in the past have proudly sat in that first category – adding great energy and a sense of humour for good measure. Now they need to be strategic masters of big data too.

We have arrived at a point of no return – where you simply can’t be one without being the other.

So, returning to my original point, will a few years down the line, an artificial mind alone be capable of leading a complex retail business? Well, it’s a no-brainer (excuse the pun) that A.I will eat up all that big data. But will it also be capable of creating the truly inspiring retail experience that customers desire? No, I don’t think so.

H.I, then – Human Intelligence – will still be, for me, the key driver of – and defender against – disruption. And the retail companies who successfully develop and acquire the best human intelligence will be, at least for now, the true masters of tomorrow.