AI in action: Paul Wilkinson, Head of Technology Research and Open Innovation, Tesco Labs

If AI is the cutting edge of retail, then it makes sense that it’s most interesting use cases are being pioneered by in-house innovation teams, and Tesco Labs is no exception.

Retail Connections spoke exclusively with Paul Wilkinson, Head of Technology Research and Open Innovation at ‎Tesco Labs, about the grocery retailer’s AI work, ahead of Paul’s panel appearance at our upcoming event – AI: the new game changer in retail – on 16th November.

How does your role and the team you work with support innovation at Tesco?

Tesco Labs has two essential roles. The first is to look for new technology that makes life easier for our customers and colleagues; the second is to understand the challenges that people within Tesco face, and look at ways to solve those challenges through technology.

Everything we develop is designed to create new experiences, products or services, to improve internal efficiency, or to enhance our customer relationships. Some of the challenges we look to address are issues within retail – such as checkout queues and shelf edge replenishment – but others develop and change as the business evolves.

Where does AI fit into Tesco Lab’s innovation strategy?

The term “AI” is very broad; elements of it are threaded through most of the work we’re doing at present. It is an important part of our innovation strategy, but personally, I don’t think we treat AI differently from any other technology. It isn’t something we’re looking to explore as a separate project; it runs through everything we’re piloting and rolling out.

Tell us more about some of your current projects that are exploring the benefit of AI

In terms of customer-focused work, we’re doing a lot of work around the rising popularity of voice assistant technology. For example, you can already shop with Tesco through Google Home and Amazon Echo.

How is AI changing the retailer/customer relationship at Tesco?

Our aim is always to help serve our customers a little better every day, and as we see new patterns emerging in customer behaviour, we want to make sure that the work we do recognises and supports this.

Customers are shopping little and often rather than doing a big store or online shop at the weekend, and voice assistants like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa make reordering individual items much easier. By bringing AI capabilities into this process, a customer can ask their voice assistant to order more bread, for example, and we have the data insights to know exactly what brand and loaf size they usually buy, without having to request further details.

In this respect, AI is proving a powerful tool to help us put the right product in the customer’s basket, increasing convenience.

Have you seen any noteworthy AI concepts being piloted by other retailers that you’re keeping an eye on?

Although it’s been around for almost a year now, I think the Amazon Go story is still really powerful.

How will AI continue to influence both Tesco’s innovation strategy, and retail innovation on the whole?

AI is everywhere, and eventually I think pretty much everything will involve some element of machine learning or deep learning. For Tesco, it’s about gradually threading AI through our business to make improvements for our customers and colleagues. However, it’s important for us to focus on the most appropriate use cases. If something works in a simple manner, we don’t want to overengineer it with AI; it’s not about using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. We want to focus on the complex challenges that AI can help us to solve.

Paul Wilkinson will be sharing further insights at Retail Connections’ next event – AI: the new game changer in retail – at London’s One Aldwych on 16th November. Book your free place at this event.

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