Retail Sustainability: Why It Pays To Add AI To The Shopping List

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When it comes to retail sustainability, consumers are clamouring for change and driving the corporate agenda. Henry Jinman of EBI.AI shows 3 ways ethical retailers are using the power of Artificial Intelligence to create a sustainable shopper experience.

Sustainability is high on everybody’s agenda. Governments are rallying to tackle extreme poverty and climate change while those companies that take ethical trading seriously are stealing a march over their competitors. Sustainability is even affecting the way people invest their hard-earned cash. According to the Government’s Department of International Development which surveyed over 6,000 members of the general public, 68% of UK savers want their investments to take into consideration the impact on people and the planet alongside financial performance. [i]

The sad reality is too many organisations only pay lip service to sustainability and it starts with one of life’s essentials – food. While a large proportion of the world goes hungry and carbon emissions are rising at an alarming rate, the food industry is unsustainable in its attitudes towards waste. It is estimated that one third of all food produced – around $1.2 trillion worth – is thrown away annually and if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd biggest CO2 emission contributing country in the world.[ii]

Artificial Intelligence leads the way

It’s a scary situation but there is a solution. Thanks to technology, forward-thinking companies are rapidly transitioning from unsustainable to sustainable by introducing Artificial Intelligence (AI) into their processes.

AI and sustainability: Morrisons

For example, one of the biggest challenges for supermarkets is they can find it hard to understand the peaks and troughs of consumer demand for products, leading to both wasted food and financial losses. AI has the potential to plug this gap, by using machine learning to develop an understanding of the factors that influence demand and automatically predict variations. The UK’s 4th largest supermarket chain Morrisons has set a target to reduce operational food waste by 50% by 2030 [iii] and has already seen the benefits of using AI to reduce stockholding in stores by around 2-3 days.[iv]

Meanwhile, Swedish trailblazer Karma was set up four years ago to create the first zero food waste generation by enabling restaurants and supermarkets to list food that would otherwise be thrown away and sell it to the public at a discount. Now an international sensation, Karma has rescued 1,200 tonnes of food, saved more than 3 million meals and cut 1,800 tonnes of CO2[v] – retail sustainability in action.

Coop Sweden: investing in AI to improve the sustainable shopper experience

Retail Sustainability: why it pays to add AI to the shopping list
Retail Sustainability: why it pays to add AI to the shopping list

Similarly, EBI.AI customer, Coop Sweden, is already ranked as the country’s most sustainable grocery chain with more than 800 stores and 3.5 million members. The organisation is taking the next step forward by helping customers to make sustainable food choices. Coop Sweden plans to use AI to:

  1. Provide sustainability footprints for 17,000 grocery items – the value of food items will be analysed and confirmed according to ten parameters i.e. biodiversity, climate, fertility, water consumption, pesticides, eutrophication, animal health, working conditions, local population and compliance and traceability.
  2. Enhance transparency to guide and reassure – as customers will be able to view all sustainability footprint details when they scan an item in-store or shop online. They will also be able to track the carbon footprint of the store’s logistics processes including the number of ‘food miles’ covered.
  3. Use machine learning to improve all-round decision-making – for shoppers and for Coop management because all data relating to sustainability will be based on and accessed via an AI assistant. Any feedback the AI assistant receives from customers will help shape future sourcing, supply chain and purchasing decisions to continually improve the sustainable shopper experience.

Retail sustainability: everyone’s a winner

In EBI.AI’s experience, organisations across many different market sectors can achieve sustainability and they don’t need huge amounts of data or big budgets to pay data scientists! One of the most commonly cited barriers to starting AI projects is ‘we need lots of data’.

In truth, to smooth the way to successful sustainability, organisations should start small, use a natural language interface and include a feedback mechanism to build the data set. Remember, the more an AI tool is used, the better it gets! To train the bot, focus on the data that links what customers are likely to ask a bot to do (the ‘intents’) with the actual words customers are likely to use to express their intents (the ‘utterances’). Look at transcriptions or call recordings of past chat sessions between customers and agents for guidance. Finally, don’t run before you can walk. Test before you go live while maintaining business as usual.

Why be a follower when you can be a leader? The application of AI to improve the shopper experience in a highly engaging and sustainable way is within every organisation’s reach. Definitely food for thought.


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