Cognitive technology has been getting a lot of attention of late, and it’s no wonder. Cognitive technology will soon impact practically everything, and it already provides glimpses of a future that we have probably not yet dreamt of.

No industry will remain untouched by cognitive technology. But one of the prime industries that are going to simply metamorphose as a result of cognitive analytics will be that of retail.

Until now -- what with all the bar-codes, QR codes, fancy packaging, billing, online and on-call customer care services available -- we have been quite content with the way retail works. But thinking beyond the automated menus and self-help kiosks which let you play with little machines to get information and more - cognitive is going to take it to another level. Soon, all of your science fiction fantasies will come alive.

No wonder that technology companies all across the world are investing in this segment. No one wants to be late out of the starting gate. After all, the significance and crucial role that will be played by artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things in retail has been well understood and acknowledged by top notch experts all across the world.

To understand the potential of cognitive technology to change retail, let’s divide our retail experience into steps: 1. When we realize we need a product 2. When we shop for it 3. When we experience the product

When we realize we need the product (Pre-sale experience)

The first question that arises in consumer product marketing is, ‘How do we really realize we need it?’

The answer is simple: We see it somewhere - at a friend’s place or in an advertisement (print or electronics) and we respond like, ‘damn! I need it!’

The next step: To figure out where you can get more information about the product, and perhaps, where you can get the best deal for it.

Let’s assume that you are at a friend’s place, you see a washing machine promotion, and you suddenly realize that you need one too. Today, all you would need to do is click a picture and input it in the device - be it your cell phone, tablet or laptop. The device will quickly get back to you with all kinds of information you might need, and you will be able to read more about the product features, along with all its technical specifications.

But being an ‘advanced’ consumer, you would like to research the product even further. No worries. Your device is doing it for you already. It is searching out and returning YouTube videos, published reviews and telling you what people on social media are saying about the product.

Technology will become your guide and understand your needs. It will ask you questions in your preferred language so that the best possible product can be suggested. For example, • ‘How many people are there in your house?’ • ‘What kind of fabric do you mostly wear?’

The human touch will be imparted in a very subtle manner without humans actually being involved. Not only this, the device will also advise you where you can buy it for the cheapest price and nearest location. If you need it immediately, it will advise you to visit the nearby electronics or appliances store. In that event, it will also check if the particular washing machine is in stock.

In the meantime, you can read available reviews and know how other people have rated it. Apart from what people are saying on social media, there are always experts available who give genuine and credible reviews about various products. You can get it all - what any expert in any corner of the world is saying about the washing machine that you have your eyes set on.

When we shop for it (Sales experience)

If you want to buy the machine right now, you have already been alerted to the nearest store and within seconds, the directions to get there are there in front of you along with the current traffic status. Perhaps you don’t feel like driving there? No worries. The bus numbers and metro routes to the store are there for you. If it is just a walk away, the computer will advise you on that option based on your current health status.

While we reach the shop and the device helps us find what we want, it can also suggest a list of related products that are available. These will be suggested according to your previous buying patterns and the feasible combinations.

Now while you are buying washing machine, you may need laundry detergent too, and maybe even an iron? Think of all the offers and combos possible. The device will analyse information and make suggestions like buying a water purifier from the same company along with this washing machine is going to give you a great discount. While you are focusing on the washing machine your device will help you know what similar products you can buy from the same store to increase your savings!

While you have picked up the washing machine, along with several other products maybe, here are some immediate questions that you should consider:

How do you want to pay for it?

What are the cash back or discount offers that you can avail with all the debit and credit cards in your wallet?

Do you also get some extra discount if you use a particular one?

Or maybe you have already spent too much from your cards and it is advisable to pay in cash.

Now, should the washing machine have an extended warranty, then the next question is, what are the packages that you can go for to have a better warranty strategy for your product? Considering the history of how you deal with machines or products, your device can accordingly suggest the kind of warranty package that is best for you.

Once ordered – whether offline or online – you need to arrange for delivery. The app on the device will inform the delivery people about the days and times you are usually at home. If you have to leave urgently for a vacation or work need, it can inform the delivery people accordingly, and you can always remain well informed about where the product is at any given time.

When we experience the product (Post-sales experience)

The impact of cognitive is not just limited to buying, but it also amplifies when you start using the product.

Here are more questions that are immediately raised.

Do you know how to set this product up and do you know what all of its buttons do?

Do you have an instruction manual?

Do you even have basic skills required to use the product, or might some YouTube videos better prepare you?

If there is an instruction manual provided, is it written in your language, or do you need help with translation?

In fact, the power of cognitive computing is that your device would have already read the manual and will provide you with understandable step-by-step instructions on how to use the washing machine for best results.

Once you start using the washing machine, your device can also prompt you to write reviews about it. In turn, cognitive techniques can help others them make better decisions on a washing machine purchase in part due to your experiences. And if you are writing positive reviews, you definitely deserve to earn some bonus points, right?

Maybe you shopped from this particular site for the first time and you should be rewarded. It can also prompt you to allow the device to recommend people in your circle based on interest and use. And if they end up buying it too, you deserve more rewards!

Later on, the washing machine will inform the manufacturer about its usage and, before it gets too late, you will have someone at your doorstep to do the basic maintenance to keep it operating well. If repair needs are detected, they can be scheduled and performed before the machine stops working.

Alternatively, if you don’t like the machine and you find that you are not using it much; your device can actually suggest you to resell it and search for and locate people who are seeking second hand products. According to your usage, preferences and interest – the device can also suggest what can be bought further to improve the experience.

Internet of Things (IoT) becoming in-charge of your health!

Now while you have your washing machine, it is observing the frequency with which you use it. Accordingly, it can predict the water consumption and family members and their age groups. Also, your air purifier is observing the level of CO2 and O2 and other pollutants; along with that, your water purifier knows how much water your family consumes. With the help of data from IoT, all these machines can interact and prepare a health score card for your family. If there is any irregularity in the patterns, the device can alert you so that you can check on it.

For example, if the drinking water consumption becomes less, maybe you will be advised to get back to your normal drinking water consumption as it can have a bad effect on your life. Similarly, if you smoke and the level of pollutants has been increasing, it can again alert you to reduce the smoking and live a healthier life.

In summary, whatever else you might think, the future of retail is looking very bright and it is definitely going to open new avenues and provide its customers a treat with multiple new possibilities and get a very convenient and better shopping experience.

(About the author: Shailendra Kumar is a partner and Asia Pacific distribution Leader for IBM Cognitive Solutions based out of Sydney. He has over 23 years of experience in business and customer analytics across Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia.)

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