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Panel considers AI impact on ecommerce

By Retail Technology | Monday March 25 2024 | UPDATED 25.03.24

Ecommerce operators convened in Manchester to discuss what AI means for the future of ecommerce.

The impact of artifical intelligence (AI) on ecommerce was the focus of a panel at tech industry body Manchester Digital’s annual Ecommerce conference last week.

Miya Knights, Retail Technology publisher, chaired the panel and posed a series of thoughtful questions to the ecommerce experts around what AI means for the future of shopping and ecommerce.

Knights was joined by panellists: Will Clayton, principal consultant at AND Digital; Dan Martin, client partner at Microsoft; Simon Deplitch, ecommerce director at CAVU,which is part of Manchester Airports Group; and, Richard Davis, principal product lead at Auto Trader UK.

Overall, it was agreed that predictive AI has been used within ecommerce for some time behind the scenes, especially for dynamic pricing optimisation. But generative AI, whose outputs can be text, audio, images or syntehic data, exploded into consumer consciousness last year, with the launch of ChatGPT.

Maintaining real connections

One of the key points of consensus was that authenticity and a real connection with human experience was still really important. Both generative AI and predictive AI both have a place within ecommerce, ideally to save time and increase efficiency.

Knights summarised some of the points by saying: “We know that for example, Generation Z still want to go to the shops, and aren’t just shopping online. We will always have low and high tech routes. It’s important to remember that authenticity translates to human touch. We can still use AI behind the scenes. But we essentially don’t want to lose the human touch.”

In terms of current usage around generative AI and predictive AI, all of the businesses represented on the panel had used the technology in some capacity.

Simplifying search and browsing

Davis, from Auto Trader UK, explained how clickthrough rates increased significantly after the business implemented AI technology that made recommendations for similar vehicles based on the overall spec the customer was looking at.

Auto Trader has also been using predictive AI for some time to help retailers price their vehicles, rather than having to do all the research themselves.

Davis also explained that at Auto Trader they don’t look at AI as a product in itself, rather a tool that can be woven in when it’s the best solution to a problem. He added, “The future of AI for us as a business is to use the technology to help consumers along every stage of their vehicle buying journey and ultimately make it as easy as possible for them to buy a vehicle.”

Dynamic pricing optimisation 

Deplitch, from CAVU, said: “Predictive AI and automation has allowed us to scale hugely. We use the technology to set the price points for millions of airport car parking spaces and lounge bookings, for example, which are all based on demand.”

Will Clayton, principal consultant at AND Digital, echoed these thoughts sharing how the maturity of both predictive AI and automation is allowing the technology to be used to create speed, consistency and efficiency in online retail, not only in pricing, but also in areas such as inventory management and the publishing process for new products.

Martin, of Microsoft, explained: “We are seeing people becoming more innovative and conversational in online search when using Copilot, which is something we’ll see more of in the future.” He added that when integrated with the MS Office suite, Copilot is excelling in efficiency in terms of admin. For example, it can create notes from a Teams meeting and then shares them among participants.

However, the panel agreed that retailers must use generative AI carefully, as it can introduce multiple issues around trust. Clayton, from AND Digital, gave an example of a retailer using AI to create product descriptions for its website.

Proceeding with caution

As there is the potential for AI hallucinations, which may create incorrect or misleading product descriptions, this could cause problems for the retailer so this risk needs to be managed as part of enabling these types of solutions.

Deplitch, from Cavu, said that, as travel is a very fragmented industry where people currently book different parts of their journey separately, AI has the potential to bring all of this together and really simplify the booking process for customers.

Clayton added: “While you'll see many businesses focus on using AI for growth and to scale in the future, you may also see others focus on a more human approach to products and services. There will always be a balance between an algorithmic approach and the human touch."

Manchester Digital is the industry body for the region’s tech and digital industry. The one day Ecommerce Conference takes place annually and brings together Greater Manchester’s leading ecommerce brands, agencies and tech businesses under one roof to discuss the future of ecommerce.

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