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AI in retail impacts transport operators

From paperless monitoring systems to smart shelves, new technologies introduced in the retail industry can change how products are transported in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry. MARISKA MORRIS reports

When hearing the term artificial intelligence (AI), most people still conjure up an image of a rogue computer, software or robot out to destroy mankind. While this makes for great cinema, it does not reflect the true nature of AI, which is simply machinery or software programmed to analyse data and react accordingly.

Although many people speak of AI as technology of the future, it is already very prevalent in most industries. The transport sector, for example, already makes use of AI technology through cruise control, collision warning and lane-assist systems.

Some of this technology can be seamlessly integrated into existing systems, while some, such as self-driving vehicles, pose more of a challenge. Transport operators not only have to prepare for the smart technologies being introduced into the transport sector, but also for AI systems that are moulding the future of related industries such as retail.

While the retail industry was arguably lagging behind other industries in terms of the introduction of AI systems, it is catching up quickly with self-checkout shopping carts, mobile kiosks, stores without cashiers and smart shelves. Unlike self-driving vehicles, some of these systems have already been already introduced in South Africa.

At the Noschcon Conference for occupation health and safety officers held in September, Stafford Masie, a technology entrepreneur, spoke about smart shelf technology that is currently on trial in the country. After failing to find certain products on the shelves of his local grocery store, Masie learned about the lack of in-store technology at many retailers.

“Some stores spend millions at the check-out counters and in the stock rooms, but nothing on the floor,” he noted. In this particular store, the stock-taking process was still undertaken manually by an employee. When the employee was absent, new stock wasn’t ordered and the shelves would remain empty.

To address this, Masie and his team designed smart shelves with weight sensors to monitor the number of units remaining on a shelf. In addition, the technology captures the data of the individuals purchasing the items to better market the products. With this technology already available, transport operators need to consider how it will impact on their businesses. It will most likely require more speedy, bulk deliveries.

In addition, there are mobile apps available to assist brands and manufacturers to better monitor and manage assets. Andrew Dawson, commercial director at MACmobile, noted: “Keeping track of these assets, managing and maintaining them, as well as ensuring that retailers adhere to service-level agreements can be a significant task.

“In Africa this is made even more challenging as the main market is dominated by informal traders and outlets in rural locations. In this complex market space, an intelligent mobile application is a key tool to help brands manage their assets more effectively.”

Many organisations manage their assets by sending representatives to check that there has been no tampering with products and that they are displayed correctly. While in the past this was mainly a paper-based process, more businesses are looking to mobile technology to assist.

“This practice has typically been dominated by paper-based manual processes, which are prone to errors, inaccuracies and inconsistencies. When assets need repair or maintenance, the agent must spend time placing a call with a service agent to schedule this. In areas where signal is poor this can prove difficult,” Dawson says.

“A mobile app can provide all of the information an agent needs for every site. It can enforce the completion of a custom-designed form and prevent the user from continuing until all required information has been captured,” he adds.

The app can include a scanner to identify the product and allow for a photo to be uploaded to monitor the condition of the product. It can also be used offline.

“As long as the agent has data access before setting out, so that the day’s schedule and asset register can be downloaded, and at the end of the day to upload information, then the app will be fully functional. All uploads are stamped according to the time the data was captured to ensure accurate tracking of data and analysis of agent efficiency,” Dawson explains.

While not directly impacting on the transport industry, similar technology can be used to monitor the condition of products leaving a warehouse and arriving at a store, which improves accountability of transport operators and drivers. Delivering products in perfect condition needs to be a priority.

Most of the innovative AI technology entering the retail market is designed to attract customers to the physical stores rather than encourage online shopping. This is good news for transport operators in the FMCG industry; however, this does not mean the industry won’t have to adapt.

As retailers and brands become more efficient in targeting products and stocking shelves, transport operators will have to further reduce turnaround times and become more accountable for the efficient delivery of products.

I’m a bookaholic born and bred with too many novels on my already over-flowing bookshelves. When I’m not reading Lauren Beukes or binge watching New Girl, I’m writing … about everything. My interests and passions change almost daily as I learn about new things and causes. If I find it interesting, I will write about it. I don’t understand why anyone would spend money on a sports car when they can buy books. I’m more a dog person than a cat person, although I would love to own a bunny one day. I can never seem to tame my very curly hair. I will never say no to a movie date and I prefer my moijto shaken not stirred.

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