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Retail Renaissance: AI Makes Shelves Smarter and Secure

AI-driven smart shelf technologies are improving the product-return experience for consumers while providing additional sales opportunities for retailers. Similarly, these smart shelf technologies have evolved into the multi-family residential market, enabling residential property managers to address the e-commerce surge by providing secure package delivery, storage, and pick up solutions.

A Renaissance For Retail Returns

The pandemic accelerated the evolution of so many contactless shopping experiences. Most retail establishments quickly embraced Buy-Online and Pickup-in-Store (BOPIS) options. Today we see further expansion of the BOPIS experience to include merchandise returns—but with an emerging technology twist. Brick and mortar retail businesses already struggling with staff reductions can now leverage enhanced smart shelving technology to keep up with the massive influx of e-commerce product returns.

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More than simply providing added convenience, the store of the future actually turns the dramatically improved return experience into a competitive market differentiator. Here’s how: leveraging smart shelving solutions, customers are able to scan item tags or receipts and simply place the return items on the shelf where Computer Vision constantly monitors their status.

Once scanned, Artificial Intelligence (AI) reviews each customer’s previous purchases and instantly suggests alternative items the consumer may be interested in, based on their shopping profile. Eventually, the intuitive system can even provide discount coupons for alternative products, enticing the customer to enter the store to learn more about the items offered and potentially make more purchases.

In addition to more streamlined return experiences, the smart return experience can also provide opportunities for AI-powered product upsell and cross-sell at the time of return, providing the customer with appropriate product options that weren’t available even at the time of initial purchase.

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One further benefit of this culmination of state-of-the-art technologies is that retailers will now be empowered to keep up with shifting consumer preferences—even at the point of a product return. Retailers will be able to increase sales at the time of return by enticing the consumer to make a similar purchase—the time when such a suggestion makes the most sense—transforming each return into a new sales opportunity and profit booster.

Finally, one phenomenon of the pandemic is the resultant labor shortage in the retail market. Experts have speculated this shortage is due to shifting worker preferences, an early-retiring workforce, and retailers’ inability to raise salaries or increase benefits while still meeting their bottom line.

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More and more retailers will actively adopt smart technologies (e.g., AI, Machine Learning, Robotic Process Automation (RPA)) to accomplish “dumb” mundane tasks previously handled manually by employees. The benefits of these technologies are many. They enable the optimization of store operations while eliminating human error by minimizing human intervention, thus reducing staff headcount and enabling employers to increase the salaries to boost the retention of the remaining staff. Additionally, it relieves employees of the burden of tedious, repetitive tasks, allowing them to provide more value to the company by focusing on customer service. As automated and AI-driven processes become more mainstream, retail locations will be able to weather the times of reduced employee pools while strengthening both their organization and their workforce in order to survive and even thrive.

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Securing The E-Commerce Package Surge

The resurgence of COVID-19 mutations can have deja-vu effects on the workplace, closing brick and mortar businesses and forcing employees to return to remote work. This pushes the e-commerce purchasing metrics through the roof. Prior to the pandemic, managers and staff at multi-family dwellings were already strained to efficiently store, organize, and secure incoming residents’ packages.

Backrooms and closet spaces became makeshift delivery holding areas as management waited for residents to inquire and pick up their packages (assuming they knew they were coming).

According to Forbes, the percentage of online retail sales to total sales almost doubled in under a year (from February 2020 to January 2021) as a result of the coronavirus. In other words, e-commerce purchases and package delivery have increased to the degree that managers of multi-family dwellings are literally unable to accept, store, secure, and process the massive volume of items getting delivered to their lobbies each day.

Early on, managers adopted lockers, assuming they would provide the most effective means of managing, storing, and securing incoming package deliveries. But lockers were not the panacea they were hoping for since lockers are mostly metal and come with set compartment sizes that never perfectly fit each package being delivered. As a result, package volume outgrew the limited fixed capacity of lockers and many packages were now too large to fit into standard-sized lockers.  This package logjam forced property managers to resort to improvising self-storage solutions in addition to or in replacement of lockers, often having to notify residents manually that their package(s) had arrived.

In 2021 multi-family housing owners pivoted to AI-based smart shelf technologies. This new solution enables couriers to access secure package rooms in multi-family dwellings and deliver each package anywhere inside a room where Computer Vision keeps track of them until they’re picked up by the recipient. Residents instantly receive automatic text and email notifications, along with a QR code that allows them to enter the smart package room. Once there, lights and audio prompt literally guide the recipient to the package’s exact location (or alert the resident if they take the wrong package).

Thanks to the dramatically improved package room storing efficiency, security, the elimination of staff intervention, and the straightforward, tech-enhanced 24/7 package retrieval process, these smart rooms enable a dramatic increase in the number of packages a multi-family housing unit is able to receive, store, and deliver. This trend towards tech-enabled smart shelving solutions and smart package rooms will become an expected standard of package management—much in the same manner that residents now expect their building to provide cable TV and WiFi internet.

[To share your insights with us, please write to sghosh@martechseries.com]

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