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AI Innovations for the Customer Experience

Retail tech

The pandemic has completely upended the ways merchants engage their customers. Retail technology has moved to the forefront, as consumers rely more than ever on mobile apps and self-service checkouts to execute their shopping journey.

How should retailers respond to these changing circumstances? Tech power couple Sarah-Jayne and Dean Gratton put this question to the experts from Box Technologies—a leader in customer engagement that works with brands such as Sainsbury’s, HSBC, Superdry, and Pizza Hut. Here’s what they had to say.

(To listen to the full interview, check out our podcast Retail Tech Chat Episode 1. Note: Box Technologies is a subsidiary of FLYTECH, a Member of the Intel® IoT Solutions Alliance.)

Self-Service Trends

Dean Gratton: Tell us a bit about Box and your roles there.

James Patterson: I’m the strategic sales and marketing director at Box Technologies. It’s a very customer-facing role—I look after some of our largest accounts and some of our largest partners as well. So we work with end users but a lot of software partners as well.

What does Box Technologies do? We’re known as a leader in technology solutions into the retail, hospitality, and gaming sector. Some of the technologies, which obviously we want to discuss with you guys today, there’s some really cutting-edge things around self-service technology with the integration of AI.

But we also have been working in that self-service space as a business for 20 years, much before McDonald’s had rolled out order points across all of its global businesses. Digital signage is also a huge, huge growth area for us. Everyone’s looking at how they can stand out on the High Street.

Sarah-Jayne Gratton: These days self-service has never been more prevalent, with what’s going on in the world?

James: Oh, I know. It’s fascinating. One of the things that, when the whole COVID thing took over, we sat down as a team and I, Leonard, and the other directors at the business, and we thought, “COVID. Are customers, are consumers, are they going to be afraid to interact with touchscreens that have been shared with other people?”

From our point of view, we were thinking, “Wow. This could be a big, big technology shift.” But we were working in the UK with even some of the essential retailers that stayed open during lockdown and they were running self-checkouts, self-service trials. It was really interesting on the retail side of things.

There was no impact at all. People were still really happy to go into stores and use express self-checkout lanes to complete their transactions and get out and complete the transaction as quickly as possible.

Then interestingly, on the hospitality side of our business, we had some pilots in play with some of the largest restaurant chains in the UK. COVID literally, totally shifted that whole piece of technology. So self-service has been skipped in some scenarios and replaced with order your own, bring your own device.

What we’re seeing now with a lot of customers is they’ve rapidly deployed either app-faced ordering systems or even Wi-Fi connected ordering systems. When you go into their restaurants, you join the Wi-Fi, it brings up an order screen, and then you can order, as the consumer, whatever you want on your own device.

Dean: Leonard, what do you do?

Leonard Gilbert-Wines: I have the pleasure of working in our business, but in a role that gives me the opportunity to listen and interact with our retailers, our hospitality—but also our partners, the guys who write the software, the code that is surfaced on these kiosks, on those Wi-Fi order quotes, and on traditional POS devices. So I do cover quite a lot of miles.

But I’m in the middle of all this technology and trying to solutionize it to bring it to market. One day I’m looking at ways to keep touchscreens safe and clean, whether that’s UV, whether that’s compliance, so that the managers or the section coordinators within these organizations can look, at a glance, on a device whether these devices have been cleaned, to the next day specifying maybe a lottery machine or some Wi-Fi technology.

Redefining Customer Experience

Dean: Box positions itself as a leader in customer experience and engagement. What does that mean to you, and what are the key factors in treating excellent engagements?

James: I really think, depending on the arena we’re working in, it means different things. Let’s consider a bingo hall, as an example. Traditionally, we all have that picture in our mind of going in there and everyone’s got a piece of paper with their different rows and lines on it. That’s all digital now. That’s all delivered via mobile devices.

But on those mobile devices, it’s not just your game of bingo. You can order your drinks to the table and your food and all of those sorts of things. That’s how they engage within a bingo hall, which can be very different to one of the high-end retailers we’re working with.

I think one of the best examples personally I’ve seen, and also Box has been heavily involved in, is we work with a brand globally called Aurum Holdings, which one of the sub-brands is Watches of Switzerland. It’s very, very high-end jewelry and watches. When I say high-end, these watches, some of them are a million-pounds plus.

There’s a great case study on our website about its store at 155 Regent Street. That was a flagship store that we worked on with Watches of Switzerland. The bottom floor was the entry-level brands, all the way up to your fifth-, sixth-level floor, which was invitation-only and VIP treatment.

Their customer base was going to be heavily populated with tourists, and tourists from certain geographies around the world: China, Russia, some of the Arabic nations as well.

They sat with us and said, “Okay, so how can we work our digital content, our digital experience, about targeting these customers?” One of the disadvantages is language barrier. They’ve got numerous screens throughout the store and throughout the different levels within the store. There’s a concierge, or a number of concierges, and they have tablet devices.

They can control every single one of those screens with the language. You may have a group of Chinese customers that come in, and they can change that content on level 2 all to be in Mandarin, as an example. So little things like that, really tailoring that customer experience.

Technology Is Transforming Retail

Sarah-Jayne: How do you think these technologies are changing the way that retailers and the hospitality markets are doing business?

Leonard: I can answer in probably the way you’re not expecting, and that is, there are technologies that are available to us that we have chosen not to productize, because it may be too much of a shift for the general public.

VR and AR, virtual reality and augmented reality, is kind of on the border, because there is that vulnerability that someone may feel by having their vision impaired in a public place. So you do need a very specific setting for that immersion.

Sarah-Jayne: Is that also a degree of subtlety, as well, in the way that it’s delivered?

Leonard: Yes. But we have produced similar examples with digital signage and having trigger points with maybe perfume bottles. You pick up certain scents, and then the visuals on the screen in front of you change depending on which scents and which bottles and which combinations you lift up.

James: We did a big project in the UK recently with Pizza Hut. It was around optimizing their kitchens. The sort of big tagline around it was “Deliver pizza.” I think it was “faster, hotter, and smarter.” It’s all about giving that better customer experience, so when you’re delivering a pizza, making sure it arrives hot, not cold, etc.

In their kitchens now, they installed a capacity of touchscreens where they now have a guy in the kitchen who zooms in on this interactive map to find the local drivers on their mopeds to call one back to make sure he can come and get his pizza and stuff in time.

That’s a real-life example where this type of interactive touch technology is being used in a Pizza Hut delivery site. I think we, as consumers, the way that we interact and consume technology now, it plays the biggest role in that.

Successful Retail Tech Deployment

Sarah-Jayne: How do you work with Intel to help retailers deliver these cutting-edge technologies?

James: Box is the European entity of a much larger technology group, which is called Flytech Technology. Intel, by far, is our biggest technology partner. We sell hundreds of thousands of Intel-based products a year. We work very, very closely with the guys, locally and on a global scale, looking at how we can innovate within our marketplaces.

I think of one example which, Leonard, you were obviously heavily involved in with the guys locally at Intel. There’s been a big demand from our customers over the years, in retail specifically, to mobilize the point-of-sale journey.

As an example, if you’re in a fashion or a department store, the ability to go on an assisted-selling journey with that customer throughout the store and then complete the transaction, our customers have been talking about it probably for seven or eight years. There’s always been some real technology limitations to it. One of the big ones was that whenever you undocked this POS tablet device, it was always basically one-to-one paired.

So you’d start at that customer journey, but this might be on floors, if you’re in a department store. It might be one to three. But then you’d always have to return back to that same docking station to complete the transaction, which totally vetoed the whole customer experience and what you’re trying to achieve.

We took that as a challenge. Leonard, it’s probably worth saying how you worked with the guys at Intel locally to come up with a solution and some technology, which we’re actually just bringing to market next month, which is a first as far as we’re aware in that sort of retail space.

Leonard: Yes, absolutely. We’re aware of the wireless technologies Intel’s brought to the office. There’s WiDi and WiGig. This allows you to place your laptop down on a desk, and you’re instantly connected to your monitor, to your printer, your mouse, your keyboard, any other peripherals.

There are no wires, essentially. We wanted to bring this to retail. But an office environment—where you’re talking, you’re working in maybe one or two meters around a desk—is very different to a retail environment, where you have the structure of the building, and you have many customers with their Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a lot of radio, a lot of noise there.

We worked closely with Intel’s innovation division in Swindon in the UK, and we tested many different solutions. We landed on something that passed the test, essentially. Our test was to take the solution to a motorway service station. These are areas where people stop off the freeway, off the motorway, for their coffee. But they’re also logging onto the Wi-Fi. So it’s a very busy, noisy environment.

The task was to have a tablet, and undock that tablet, but maintain the ports, the connected devices that are connected to the hub, so the retail software doesn’t have a break. There’s no disconnection. It’s a seamless transition from physically connected to connected over Wi-Fi. We achieved that using firmware-level optimizations and also drivers, which we leveraged, as well as a custom EC chip within the hub that hosts our Wi-Fi connectivity.

The challenge is that  if you have a tablet docked, and you undock it, you lose connectivity. Those comports or USB connections disappear. You lose the scanner, you lose the printer, you lose any other peripheral you’re connected to. POS software traditionally does not like that. It will crash, and you have to reboot the device to bring them back. So we have to make that a seamless connection.

James: I think any readers who have worked in this space will understand very well. It’s been on the radar for a while. So it’s great to work with Intel to solve it.

I think another recent example we’ve been collaborating with Intel is around Intel’s OpenVINO platform and, again, within the Flytech group, we’ve got a sister company called Berry AI, which, as it says in the brand name, it’s a computer vision AI business. We work very, very closely with those guys.

Postal Service Case Study

James: One of the solutions we came up with as a collaboration was around automating the experience within a post office. People don’t go to post offices as much as they once did. But when you typically do go there now, you end up waiting in a queue.

Part of the challenge there for any postal company across the world is that there’s still a very manual human interaction process between saying, “I’ve got this parcel in my hands. What size is it? What weight is it?” which means, “This is how much I need to pay for, if it’s a letter, it’s a stamp. This is how much I need to pay for shipping.” It’s a process that, if it takes five minutes per customer, and you’ve got five people in your queue, that’s 25 minutes.

We’re not going to wait as consumers now for 25 minutes in a shop. That just doesn’t happen. So what we’ve created is basically a self-service kiosk with integrated AI, which basically takes out that requirement for this human interaction.

There are different sizes of these kiosks, depending on the parcel size, but let’s take the one version. This is any letter and any parcel that is up to a large shoebox size of any material as well, because that’s a key thing as well. Sometimes letters are paper, cardboard. Packages could be different types of plastic.

We take any of those parcels or letters, you place it on our kiosk platform and then within seconds, the camera, the AI, kicks into place and comes up on the screen and says, “By the way, Sarah, you owe us 50p to send this parcel. Please tap your card. We’ll print you off a label. Stick your label on your parcel, and just please put it in that dispatch bin over there.” And you’ve cut down that process, which at minimum, I’m probably being cautious here when I say five minutes. You’ve cut down that process to 20, 30 seconds.

Leonard: That is a great example of leveraging that computer vision with OpenVINO, pairing with a weigh scale, and then essentially just giving a location for a customer to place that parcel, and then giving them those options: “Do you want silver service, next day, three-day service?” Prints a ticket. It allows the counter, then, to spend the time for maybe checking my passport application, insurance documents. They’re the skills that the members of staff want to spend time with the customers for those extra services.

James: I think that’s a great point, just to sort of wrap that bit up on the postal side of things. Post offices now, with their retail spaces, to survive, they don’t make much money on returning parcels or letters. That’s just the service that they provide. Where they make the money is things like holiday insurance, passport returns, all of those services that they offer to the customers.

In the UK, it’s expensive. They’ll probably offer 150 different services, too, but they’re the ones that take human interaction, and it’s like you said, it frees those people to make those profitable service engagements.

The Hype and Reality of AI

Dean: What does artificial intelligence mean for you?

James: I think when we look at any technology, and I think let’s bring AI into the mix as well, we always start off with: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? And can we use elements of our technology suite to help solve that problem, not just for technology’s sake?

What we say to any of our customers that are going on pilots or even adopting this type of technology at scale, it’s not just about the technology. You have to go through an implementation process as a business with your customers.

One of the biggest shifts that we saw in our core markets was when supermarkets suddenly decided that they were going to introduce self-checkouts. Everyone stayed, and I was one of them. I would literally avoid them like the plague.

Then supermarkets went, “Okay. Initially, what we’re going to do is we’re going to put a couple of people around the technology. We’ll show you how to use it.”  Once we’ve seen, and once we’ve done something once, twice, three times, it becomes second nature, and then we adopt it.

So yeah, I think it’s as much about the technology, but how you implement that, and how you take your customers on that journey. Technology, just put out in isolation, never has the success that people hope it will.

Reducing Maintenance Headaches

Sarah-Jayne: How are you dealing with the upkeep side of things?

James: Let’s take a supermarket. It has all of these devices, all of these computer devices, whether they’re till points, whether they’re mobility tablets, whether they’re digital signage screens, whether they’re back-office workstations. Now, any of these computer devices, they’ve got thousands of these across their estate.

Currently, a lot of them don’t have a single view, a basic form, of all of their connected devices. So when something goes wrong, let’s say till point 1 has an issue, the current process is someone in that store has to notice that there’s a problem, and then they’ll ring up their service desk. There’s a bit of human interaction, a bit of triaging.

Then they can’t fix it over the phone. They then log a call with the engineering team. They then put a part in their van, and they drive to the store and fix it. That is the process that, like I said, has been carried out for a long period of time.

The reality is, just throwing more people at it, one, adds cost to the service, which in this current climate, everyone is looking at how they can save costs. But two, there’s no use of technology there, really. How can we use technology to improve this?

So now the AI we discussed earlier will be continuously monitoring the supermarket’s connected estate. If it notices that something’s wrong—let’s just take an example: till one’s screen’s not turning on for whatever reason. Before the human intervention, there’ll be a number of steps that the application will go through to try to fix that problem.

With machine learning, it would start to prioritize those steps depending on what are the common trends that the application sees within that particular retailer. So that’s one side of it.

The other part it brings, because everything is connected, is life-cycle management of those devices. We can then look at, if you took a traditional supermarket, they may have 10 rows of tills. Rows 1 to 3 are probably used 75% of the; 3 to 6 may be 50% of the time; 6 to 10 is only 25% of the time.

Currently, it’s very difficult for any retailer or any customer to look at that, and go, “Okay. This is the life cycle I’ve got left.” Our system gives you that. Then you can rather than go and buy all new devices, swap tills 6 to 10 with 1 to 4 and get more out of your hardware platforms.

Where we’re at currently is we know that we can solve 36%, at minimum, of what would have been engineers arriving at a site with a part in their van. We all live in an environmentally friendly world now.

Leonard: Yeah. I think just to add to that, James, is the key role of that service is the investment in these devices, they need to work. We want to maximize that uptime. Anytime a device is removed from site, which is faulty, in quotation marks, it goes on its own journey to a repair center, then has miles in carbon footprint added to that.

You mentioned vPro and AMT technologies. There’s a part to play with those technologies. But we do have devices that don’t qualify for those technologies. So we are writing our own custom firmware to surface that information. It’s not as shallow as a utility on Windows. It goes up to the cloud and right down to the metal on our devices.

Dean: Is there anything else you guys want to touch upon before we conclude?

James: I think we’ve covered a really broad area across the self-checkout side of things and innovation there. AI through self-service kiosks. We’re also developing certain AI cameras for vertical markets as well. The engagement around mobilizing devices and point-of-sale devices, and what we said there around changing the game, delivering smart service to our customers.

About the Author

Kenton Williston is the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech and served as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

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