Ulrich Spaan: Retail Industry

Ulrich Spaan

The retail industry. Social Distancing, digitalization, artificial intelligence, customer fears. Where do the symbols of German prosperity go from here, is the retail industry in a snuffy state? To answer this question, we should start at the beginning and not at the end. The shortage of IT specialists in the retail sector is such a front. And one person who could give us some information here is Ulrich Spaan. At the EHI Retail Institute, he is responsible for the IT and e-commerce research areas at management level.

German version

And just now, of all times, at the narrow end of the restrictions, when various loosening measures are hopefully coming into play, it is actually becoming apparent that the shortage of skilled workers is turning into a kind of balanced supply.

But not because universities suddenly realized that they were offering training courses that served the market. No kidding. Not much has (yet) changed. It’s because skilled personnel are now forced to leave their old jobs and, on their way to new shores, they are making the job market happy with their existence, said Spaan. Employers who otherwise desperately sought the right person are now enjoying a leap in the supply of those who didn’t seem to be there.

I think any AI would have been overwhelmed to predict the demand for toilet paper.

Oh dear, now companies are not blaming a virus, are they? “So not that I’m aware of.” Nevertheless, there is this relaxation in the employment market, where people with a high level of digital understanding, with digital affinity, are cavorting around. “We don’t need the specialists so much, we need those with a technological understanding and management skills at the same time.
So the much-vaunted data scientist remains very important.

So all we have to do is just survive the valley of silence? “Many people have other problems right now than dealing with technology. But it shows that those who are already well digitized have it easier now. Spaan is confident that digitization will continue to pick up speed. And as said, the skilled personnel seem to be there now. Is this followed by artificial intelligence, or is artificial intelligence not the most important form of digitization for the retail sector, Mr Spaan? Here he has a clear view of things. Artificial intelligence will continue to establish itself, above all in the analytics environment.

But what happens now?

The thing with the paper was a revelation for the retail industry. “If AI was already further along, companies might have been able to reorganize certain replenishment and logistics processes much more quickly in this pandemic. Or yes, if we now had stores that had actually already implemented IoT in some form, stores would be fully automated, there would be hardly any staff in them, and the entry arrangements would also be automated. The relaxation would probably be less problematic than it is now.

What consequences do the retailers draw from all this? And now we are seeing a rock-solid Spaan. He thinks he knows that the supply chain processes in question are being thought through further — especially with AI. As far as the individual stores are concerned, he is even more certain. Once the shock has passed and the processes have been cleared, the new hygiene regulations will also be implemented using technology to control entrances and exits. Visitors may already be informed at home by smartphone when they can enter the store.

An example of a great planning app would be Start-up Appointrix: “Markets could offer this service to their logged-in customers via their own tracing app using facial recognition. Then one could regulate the whole thing even more intelligently with a nice AI algorithm to predict the waiting time for each individual”. Unavoidable? It remains to be seen.”

What conclusion do you have for us? We have the impression that no one can predict anything right now, despite all the technology we already have: “As I said, we are at a time when it has become very uncertain to predict things, we are all facing completely new situations. We don’t know how customers will react.”

Thanks, Ulrich Spaan!
“I wouldn’t question that the use of technology is important. On the contrary. I think that in situations like this, you realize all the more how important it is to stand on several feet and to have your company cleanly digitalized.”

Journalist // Blogger // Podcaster with focus on Artificial Intelligence and Data Science /// AI Series — SAS Hidden Insights