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Robots And Artificial Intelligence Set To Upend The Art Of Making A Sale

18 January, 2017

Robots And Artificial Intelligence Set To Upend The Art Of Making A Sale

As soon as you approach Pepper, a four-foot-tall robot, she starts sizing you up.

 Thanks to facial recognition capabilities, Pepper can determine your gender and age bracket. And as you begin asking her questions, she can draw from a vast volume of cloud-based information to give what she thinks are relevant answers. If you smile, she can tell the conversation is going well and that you’re finding her answers helpful. If you don’t, she might ask you if she’s misunderstanding your requests.

Pepper’s maker, Softbank Robotics, has a vision of a world in which many retailers incorporate this technology into brick-and-mortar stores, in which it feels normal and reflexive for you to approach a robot with customer service questions.

It’s part of a wider push across the retail industry to bring more automation and data science to one of the few parts of the business that largely remains an art: the act of making a sale.

At the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, an event here attended by tens of thousands of industry professionals, demonstrations abounded of technology that could assist a store employee in closing the deal — or, in some cases, that could answer the very questions clerks might typically help with.

These innovations present tantalizing possibilities for retailers, who can ill afford to lose any opportunity to satisfy or even upsell a customer at a time when mall foot traffic is tumbling precipitously. But the advances also raise thorny questions about what the retail workforce of the future will look like if a growing array of tasks can soon be punted to robots or tablet applications.

When you first encounter Pepper, it’s hard not to be struck by the quirky novelty of the situation: You’re being chatted up by something that looks part animé cartoon, part “Star Wars” stormtrooper. And yet the interaction feels strangely familiar, because of how uncannily humanoid her gestures are. From the way she cocks her head when asking a question to the way her fingers curl up when she draws her hands to her hips, it all feels very integrated.

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