How AI helps retail during the pandemic


The retail industry has been facing quickly evolving market pressures due to digitalization and technology advances. Today, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is increasing the pressure retailers are facing to change how they do business. Can artificial intelligence (AI) help retail survive? The short answer is yes. As in many AI use cases across verticals, the pandemic simply magnifies the need for automation and more principled predictive analytics.

Omdia spoke with two AI vendor companies that were interviewed for our Artificial Intelligence for Retail Applications report to understand the interest and activity level for their solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stockout management & promotion compliance

One of the greatest challenges for physical retailers is knowing specifically and at all times what is on their shelves. Not knowing what is on the shelf leads to out-of-stock issues. Grocery stores the world over have experienced these challenges during the pandemic.

Solutions providers are using computer vision to create detailed, evergreen digital mapping of physical stores. The goal is to produce real-time stock and merchandising compliance actions, as well as recommendations to better manage stock further up the supply chain.

Pensa Systems is a startup that has taken direct aim at the stockout management & promotion compliance use case. To no surprise, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in Pensa’s solutions, according to CEO Richard Schwartz:

Demand for many grocery and drugstore products has surged in uneven ways, changing every day and week during the crisis. The entire supply chain is struggling to keep up and to determine which products to pump through the supply chain to the right stores. Staples are being purchased in every food category in unpredicted ways. This situation is forcing more rapid control over inventory systems inaccuracy and techniques for better monitoring and prediction of demand and product availability. Our “eyes in the store” technology focused on on-shelf-availability helps to rapidly disseminate that view to the right people all along the supply chain.

Retailers and manufacturers are looking to move toward more real-time planning and prediction for shelf management. We are seen as part of that improvement. 

Autonomous stores

Santa Clara, California-based AiFi has launched what it is calling an autonomous store platform, giving retailers a flexible platform for launching anything from micro and nano stores to superstores. The platform leverages computer vision to fuel sales analytics, brand insights, workforce management, inventory management, shopper behavior analytics, and process optimization. Here is what spokesperson Liu Yang had to say about the pandemic’s impact:

The COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate trends that were already underway. SARS led to the birth of China e-commerce including Alibaba and This time, it may lead to contactless services around the world, including the food delivery services and the autonomous stores, like AiFi’s AutoCheckout store … Our store in Shanghai has been operating during the COVID-19 outbreak. Retail store operators and food delivery workers are the lifelines in the outbreak. It is especially important to protect their health. Store operators of this Shanghai store shared feedback that they feel safe to work in a contactless autonomous store. 

To date, countries, cities, companies continue to improvise and decide on the fly how to cope with the rapidly changing situation, resulting in disjointed and inconsistent measures. In the longer term, technology will be a critical tool in the war against the unexpected. I believe there will be increasing investment in autonomous technology like ours, not only driven by retailers but also as part of strategic digital infrastructure to support community resilience and the sanitation of cities.


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