R:Evolution 4.0: The Tech Panel

How Data and Tech are Impacting Future Business Models

What do artificial intelligence, drones, VR, and data all have in common? While some believe these to be either passing gimmicks – a few more “fads from the Valley” chased by diehard early adopters – wider adoption by retailers and customers is much closer than it may appear. In this panel, TrueStart’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Richard Anson, chaired an exceptional line-up of current and former leads from the likes of Deliveroo, Amazon and Shop Direct to discuss how data is impacting technology and its ability to make the lives of consumers better, more personalised, and a more enriched experience.

In October 2016, seemingly under the radar, Amazon released the Echo and Echo Dot. This has since opened a world of opportunities for developers to understand how people want to interact with computers – and retailers have picked up on this. William Tunstall-Pedoe founded Evi, a Cambridge-based business acquired in 2012 by Amazon due to its defining characteristics that led directly to Alexa. Whilst one can recall the flawed “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer”, HAL 9000, from a Space Odyssey – or more recently Joaquim Phoenix falling in love with Scarlett Johansson’s voice – a helpful computer voice has moved away from science fiction and into everyday reality. William predicts it won’t be long until a non-talking computer is as bizarre to a child as a 7-inch photo frame that can’t be swiped.

Sam Barton, Head of User Experience at Shop Direct, discussed how retailers can better listen to their customers, a process through which it has constantly been focused on to innovate and serve customers better. Previously perceived as a bricks-and-mortar business, Shop Direct’s famous catalogue received the defining nail in the coffin when data showed that over 50s were buying iPads and tablets in their droves; a clear sign that their consumers were changing the way they shopped. For AI, it isn’t just voice that technology enables retailers to have a more personalised digital experience with their customers; chatbots have been heavily funded in the US over the past few years. Through the data-centricity of Shop Direct, the company is now able to serve customers through these bots rather than people, though this is currently on a trial basis in conjunction with IBM Watson. Whilst the Turing test hasn’t quite been passed, this is the medium-term goal as it extends its trial company-wide from its 200k customers on the Very app.

Finally, the panel debated how data is solving the problem with “the last mile” – the movement of stock to its final destination point: the customer / their home. Deliveroo is using data on a geolocational basis to optimise their fleet of “riders”, and is using data to such a degree that there is a question of how to use it to efficiently incentivise to such riders. One can see more tangibly the possibility of using drones to deliver to customers’ houses, however more intensive the capital expenditure initially.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusion of the panel is that the likes of VR, drones and AI aren’t just buzzy fads: these are disintermediating the tech we know today, and it’s up to all retailers to innovate. Indeed, advances in retail technology isn’t necessarily being led by the behemoth that is Amazon: Amazon wasn’t even the first to accomplish a regular ‘drone delivery’; that honour goes to a 90-year, 57,000-store retailer that doesn’t have a transactional website! It goes to show it takes all retailers to advocate innovation.

Find out more about R:Evolution here.