Editor's pick Retail technology on a future where robots replace humans

Richard Liu, CEO,
Richard Liu, CEO,

“Sooner or later, our entire industry will be operated by AI and robots, not humans,” said’s CEO, Richard Liu, at the World Retail Conference in Madrid this week.

Speaking to a large audience of retail professionals, the head of China’s second-largest e-commerce company (behind the Alibaba Group), highlighted the fact he believes the future of retail is all about automation.

The Asia region is known to heavily invest in technologies that enable more personalized, seamless, and often self-directed retail experiences, as we recently highlighted on the site, making this a more natural leap for such businesses, but Liu’s views were not met by everyone worldwide.

Mango chairman Daniel Lopez disagreed on the idea of automation as inevitable, saying that humans are sociable at the core, so stores should strive to provide that element. “This is part of the experience that consumers are looking for, and by all means we shouldn’t lose that human touch,” he said. Mango has always had ‘experience’ as a central part of its DNA as a result, he explained.

In another conversation, John Lewis’ group development director, Tom Athron, delivered a warning on the same note: “Walk away from the power of the human at your peril. To assume consumers want everything to be automated or screen-based is naive, they want that in some ways, but I have a belief that humans and machines together will always be better than humans on their own, or machines on their own.”

Athron agreed, however, that some automation is necessary when labor is a retailer’s biggest cost. As the industry and technology evolves, it’s inevitable computers will be able to perform certain jobs more efficiently, he explained, making it essential to shift accordingly to an extent in order to remain competitive.

Véronique Laury, CEO of Kingfisher, which owns companies such as UK DIY retailer B&Q, says that the only benefit a physical store will have in the future is to provide emotion-led experiences, which are more often than not facilitated by humans. “That emotional connection is not completely fulfilled through digital techniques or technology. The human being side of talking to someone who understands what you are going through will be really important even in the future,” she said as she likewise dismissed the idea of purely automated or robotic-led stores.

Beyond experience, convenience and frictionless shopping was also a central theme of the conversation at the event.’s Liu also spoke about how the company is always finding opportunities to invest in logistics capabilities to serve the Chinese consumer’s evolving expectations around speed, for instance.’s delivery service currently covers 100% of China and offers next day delivery to 90% of its 252 million customers. Liu’s goal for the next few years is to have a convenience store in every Chinese village, and the retailer is currently deploying drone technology to source and supply more remote locations until it reaches that milestone.

Retail technology

Macy’s to launch self-checkouts and VR furniture shopping by the end of 2018

Macy's Mobile Checkout
Macy’s Mobile Checkout

Macy’s is introducing a series of tech capabilities to its brick and mortar store before the end of the year, as the retailer continues to fight to win back space in the US retail race.

Speaking on the first day of retail conference Shoptalk in Las Vegas, CEO Jeff Gennette, introduced a new feature that allows customers to use the Macy’s app to scan an item to pay. To finish the purchase, customers will then merely need to head to a mobile checkout counter located near the exits, where a sales associate will remove any shopping tags and bag the merchandise.

Alongside more convenient click & collect capabilities, these features will be rolled out across every Macy’s location by the end of 2018, he explained.

“We think of the Macy’s app as a key we hand to our customers, a key that allows them to unlock an enhanced shopping experience – a world of possibilities. With this powerful tool in hand, we give them the opportunity to engage with us on their terms. And we keep adding exciting new features to it based on what they tell us,” said Gennette in a press release.

The retailer has also worked with Ohio-based virtual and augmented reality specialist Marxent, to use their 3D Cloud and VR solution to create a VR furniture shopping experience. During early tests, the concept “significantly increased” transaction size, Gennette said.

In the in-store experience, consumers can use tablets to virtually design their own room and place Macy’s furniture inside, which can then be watched in 3D via a VR headset. The feature will roll out at 60 Macy’s locations by the summer. It will also allow the retailer to introduce furniture in smaller retail storefronts as it won’t need to store its full line. In addition, an AR furniture shopping feature will be incorporated into the retailer’s app in April.

Macy's VR Furniture Shopping
Macy’s VR Furniture Shopping

“Consumers today don’t just adopt technology, they absorb it at a tremendous pace, but they want it to be useful to their needs. Like a lot of brands, we’ve experimented with VR in a number of areas and we’re excited to have found a practical application that has proven to drive sales. In furniture, we are giving our customers a new tool that will allow them to virtually test out home furnishings, helping them make more informed decisions on these important purchases,” said Gennette.

At present, furniture retailers such as IKEA and Wayfair are deploying similar capabilities, while AR is also being heavily applied in the beauty industry, and dabbled with in fashion.

Retailers like Macy’s and Target were present at the Shoptalk conference to talk about how they are developing in-store technologies that will respond to consumer demand and help them stay head-above-water when going up against the elephant in the room: Amazon. It was no mere coincidence that on the same day, Gianna Puerini, VP of Amazon Go, and Dilip Kumar, VP of technology for Amazon Go and Amazon Books, also took to the stage, where they shared consumer insights on their store’s cashierless experience since launching in Seattle a little over a year ago.

e-commerce technology

Amazon Go is a go! Automated store opens to the public

Amazon Go
Amazon Go

Amazon has opened its highly anticipated automated store – Amazon Go – to the public, more than a year after it launched the pilot.

The Seattle-based grocery store has no cashiers on site, as well as no checkouts for shoppers to contend with. Instead they download the Amazon Go app and scan it on entry. From there they can simply walk out with products in order to activate automatic payment.

The idea for the store came five years ago at Amazon. According to Recode, Dilip Kumar, the Amazon Go technology chief who served for nearly two years as CEO Jeff Bezos’ technical adviser, asked the question: “What can we do to improve on convenience?” The answer consistently came back to solving the fact people don’t like waiting in line.

The resulting 1,800 sq ft space features special cameras, shelf sensors that track inventory and the company’s computer vision system. As a result, it knows when you have put something back down, comparative to when you’ve actually walked out with it.

This isn’t however a completely employee-free zone – various staff are on hand to help at the entrance and to restock the shelves.

Until now, only employees of Amazon were able to use the store, which is housed within the e-commerce giant’s headquarters. The concept was first announced in December 2016 but has taken over a year to be consumer-ready while various bugs were ironed out. It couldn’t previously cope when the store got too crowded for instance or when items were misplaced.

The company has yet to announce plans for further rollout or for a business model attached to it. It is imagined however, that Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” technology may be licensed to other retail partners down the line.

business data Events

Vote for our SXSW panel: The Fight for Fit in Retail

SXSW - vote for us for 2017!
SXSW – vote for us for 2017!

How’s this for a stat: according to IHL Group, returns accounted for $642.6 billion in lost retail sales in the US during 2015. One significant factor behind that: fit.

We all know the headache of not knowing what size is right in an item we want to buy (both online and in-store), but given the data-led age we’re in, does it really still have to be that hard?

That’s the basis for the proposed panel we’ve been invited to be a part of at SXSW Interactive in 2017. To make it happen, we very kindly need your vote. It takes just a minute to register and click the thumbs up for us. SXSW operates on a Panel Picker system, meaning you, the audience, get a say in what you see once you arrive in Austin, Texas, next March. (And even if you’re not attending, voting for us will mean lots of content to follow on here on this subject, so please do click!)

Our session bids to explore how “fit” factors into a retailers’ success and survival, and what retailers can do to reduce returns, increase customer loyalty and meet the needs of changing consumer demands accordingly.

I’ll be joining Jessica Murphy of True Fit?, Marge Laney of Alert Tech? and Sarah Engel of DynamicAction to discuss how it has evolved from the early days of ready-to-wear clothing to custom clothes-on-demand. From apparel to cosmetics, we’ll explore how retailers need to keep up with changing styles, sizes and gender identities, the shifting role of sales associates, and how technology – from smart mirrors and body imaging to virtual reality – is changing the way shoppers find the perfect fit.

Please click here to vote before it closes this Friday, September 2!