Among the many cool technologies and solutions we saw at NRF 2018 Retail’s Big Show & EXPO, one over-arching theme stood out: artificial intelligence (AI) can help retailers achieve their ultimate goal of intelligent customer engagement.

This is true no matter what the interaction – mobile, online, or IRL (“in real life”). All the buzz at NRF was over AI-based tools that can give retailers greater insight into customer behavior and help them connect to customers in a more human way.

Google, of course, is focusing heavily on AI and big data, particularly on ways to make them ubiquitous and available to many more retailers. Google followed NRF by announcing the alpha launch of AutoML Vision, a new service that helps developers — including those with no machine learning (ML) expertise — build custom image recognition models.

Truly, 2018 is shaping up as the year of intelligent customer engagement. Everywhere we went at the Big Show, we heard how today’s consumers want intelligent customer engagement – human connections based on personalized services.

Joe Jensen, vice president and general manager of the retail solutions division at Intel, shared that AI will give retailers better data about customer behavior in the store. It will also provide “simple, actionable insights” for staff to use in personalizing services and enhancing customer engagement.

It’s clear that cutting-edge retailers will develop a customer experience architecture supported by an AI layer. Why? Embedded AI makes data actionable. Take intelligent appointment scheduling (IAS), for example – a topic we discussed extensively with show-goers this weekend.

IAS allows consumer-facing businesses to establish the right connections with the right customers and prospects – across channels and at exactly the right moment. It’s exactly the type of embedded AI that gives companies real-time customer insights and customized actions, producing better meetings and higher-growth businesses.

These are the types of connections – and the type of intelligent customer engagement experience – demanded by today’s consumers. Retailers want to touch buyers via any channel, and at any point in their buyer’s journey. Smart brands will offer integrated solutions that connect to the right resources – whether they be in sales, marketing, service, technical teams, or in-store experts.

MadMobile demo at NRF2018The physical store remains the primary way that consumers prefer to shop, according to Jensen and other NRF presenters. But the in-store experience now depends on bringing the right technology into stores so retailers can optimize customer engagement. The unified commerce company Mad Mobile had a really cool demo, for example, showing how its retail solution makes customers visible to store associates by giving store associates the ability to combine functionality for clienteling, assisted selling, engagement, and productivity. And Theatro, pioneers of a new intelligent assistant and voice-controlled mobile communication platform, showed how the sales associate can use voice to manage inventory, staff, and make sure there are enough greeters.

These are all examples of intelligent customer engagement – and that’s the big story from the Big Show. It will be interesting to see how retailers take advantage of the AI tools that are increasingly available.

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