With AI now permeating every part of the industry, Spencer Stuart’s Veena Marr examines how retailers can decode untapped opportunities to unwrap a deeper potential


My 13-year-old son rarely comments on my work, but the news that I was speaking at an event about AI prompted a response that I will clutch as a parental win until my dying days.

But more seriously, his endorsement shows the pervasiveness that AI now enjoys. While it has infiltrated every conversation we have with executives and board members, such discussions are now no longer reserved for the boardroom.

The advent of ChatGPT and Gen-AI have now made it relatable and tangible for us as consumers, parents and humans.

Today, these technologies are provoking a mix of excitement, awe and, unsurprisingly, anxiety about what lies ahead. And the world of retail is no exception.

“Which direction should they take? How can AI have the optimum impact? What is the right decision for their culture, customers and growth ambitions?”

Of course, there are many ways that retailers are already using these technologies. From forecasting demand to cashierless checkouts, and from inventory management to personalised customer recommendations, there is no shortage of options to consider.

But that in itself is a challenge.

Which direction should they take? How can AI have the optimum impact? What is the right decision for their culture, customers and growth ambitions? Answers will vary from retailer to retailer.

However, one area that brooks little disagreement is the importance of prioritising transparency and responsibility.

Leaders are often worried about taking too long to make decisions and being left behind by their competitors, but it is important that they balance speedy deployments with an informed approach emphasising human-centricity.

Those retailers who adopt this blended approach are best placed to protect their customers and workforce, while also achieving optimum value from their investments. In other words, they need to:

  1. Test at pace
  2. Understand what works
  3. Ruthlessly kick out things that are not working
  4. Deploy thoughtfully and with the long term in mind

Ensuring that safeguards are deployed around their customers’ personal data and designing processes that combine algorithms and humans will result in the enhanced customer experience any retailer is striving for.

Achieving this ambition will require the right blend of interdisciplinary talent. Alongside engineers and technologists, retailers also need to attract specialists in areas such as data privacy and intellectual property — it really does take a village.

Much hinges on retail leaders being flexible enough to adapt to this fast-changing environment. It’s also important to recognise that failures can and will happen. Such incidents must be viewed as an opportunity to learn and do things better.

The good news is that much of this is already happening. And as the Gen-AI revolution continues to proliferate in every direction, retailers will have an abundance of fresh opportunities to pursue.

Doing so requires patience, responsibility and horizon scanning around the systemic solutions that AI can help deliver. Don’t think of Gen-AI as an overnight fix – far better to view it as a way to transform operations over the long term.

So, yes, retailers should take care in this new world but they should be excited, too. An as-yet-untapped blend of enhancing, transformational benefits for both themselves and their customers await.

Veena Marr, Spencer Stuart

Veena Marr co-leads Spencer Stuart’s digital and technology officer practice across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, working closely with retail leaders and organisations