Retailers are turning to generative AI to power search engines and chatbots in a push to make digital experience more helpful and convenient.
As generative AI lays the foundations for the next generation of web experiences, retailers are developing use cases with customers in mind. Companies are rolling out the technology in ways that can improve existing journeys, rather than create entirely new ones.
Walmart, one of retail’s leaders in this area, announced generative AI-powered search tools designed to enhance its app in the days before the National Retail Federation’s Big Show conference, held Jan. 14-15 in New York City. The retailer discussed its plans in greater detail during the event.
“On average, customers spend six hours per week searching for items, tapping on pages, deciding whether this is what they want or not, going back and searching, and ultimately adding something to their cart,” said Anshu Bhardwaj, SVP and COO at Walmart Global Technology and Walmart Commerce Technologies, in an interview with CX Dive at NRF. “I think we can reduce that manyfold.”
Imagine planning a unicorn-themed party with Walmart’s GenAI search feature, Bhardwaj said. Previously, shoppers needed to search for unicorn paper plates, favors and a cake individually.
Now, querying “unicorn birthday party” will return a curated list with all those and any other relevant products, she said.
While generative AI can somewhat replicate the experience of connecting with an associate online, that isn’t necessarily the goal, according to Bhardwaj.
“To me, that's not the use case that a customer is coming online for as the default,” she said. “The customer online is looking to make sure that they have the right set of items, and then if they’re not sure, have somebody else validate them.”
AI-led experiences will still put people first
Companies’ understanding of how their customers prefer to interact will shape how they implement generative AI solutions. Some efforts will focus on personalization, while others will automate customer service.
Canadian Tire is using generative AI to assist the browsing experience through a chatbot shopping assistant that will be released sometime in the coming months, and convenience will be top of mind, according to Cari Covent, head of AI and emerging technology at Canadian Tire.
“The value that we expect to create is really by giving our customers an opportunity to interact with us in a very different way and get the information that they're looking for much quicker,” Covent said during a Sunday panel discussion at NRF.
While generative AI has opened new avenues to improve the customer experience, it remains essential to keep humans at the center of any new developments, according to Covent.
Any new benefits should still focus on retail’s traditional stakeholders: customers and associates.
“We take a human-centered approach to how we solve our problems,” Covent said. “We believe that AI is the opportunity, whether it's generative AI or traditional AI, to solve these problems in a different way.”
Some retailers are taking implementation slow
Not all retailers are rushing into generative AI. Target confirmed in December that it is exploring the possibilities generative AI offers, but the company is not rushing to be at the forefront of implementation, according to Melissa Ludack, VP of data science at Target.
"The way that we think about it is really kind of on a spectrum,” Ludack said during a Sunday session at the conference. “If you think about it from a strategy standpoint, we can be a visionary leader in front, we can be a fast follower on the flip side, or we can wait somewhere in the middle."
Target has chosen to wait in the middle as what Ludack called a “strategic planner.” The retailer aims to ensure any generative AI implementation keeps its business objectives in mind while being grounded in humanity.
This approach will also help the company better understand the business impact of any steps it might take, according to Ludack. It will also enable generative AI to fit in alongside the existing AI already powering Target’s customer experience, such as its last-mile efforts.
"We will, as part of our strategy, continue to refine [older AI models],” Ludack said. “We will continue to build new ones where it's the right technique for solving the problem that's in front of us. Generative AI is another tool that we have in our AI toolkit for how we want to solve our problems.”