Digitizing the offline: How Alibaba’s FashionAI can revive the waning retail industry

2 min read

Imagine a visit to a store when you end up forgetting what you wanted to purchase, but the screen at front tells you all about your preferences. Before you struggle to pick a selection, the system tells you what you could possibly try and which items you could end up purchasing.

All this is happening in the malls of China, thanks to artificial intelligence. Thanks to the Alibaba Group which is on a mission to revive the offline retail market.

Ever since inception in 2009, the Singles Day festival has been considered the biggest opportunity for shopping in China. There was no better occasion for Alibaba to test its artificial intelligence product FashionAI.

And this year, the sales zoomed. Alibaba’s gross merchandise volume gained a mammoth 25 billion dollars on Nov. 11, breaking its last year’s gross figure of $17.8 billion by a considerable margin. Majorly attributed to the FashionAI initiative.

At a time when offline retail is in decline all across the world, Alibaba’s Fashion AI could single-handedly reinvent the market. It will drag you back to the malls.

When the tiny sensors embedded in the cloth you just tried suggest you all ‘matching’ items, you do not mind visiting the stores with an easy to use recognizable interface at front that saves you from all the old drudgeries in retail shopping!

The FashionAI screen interface uses machine learning for its suggestions, based on the items being tried on. It extends the information stored into the product tag to generate recommendations. Using the system, a customer can try clothes on, get related ‘smart’ suggestions from the AI, and then finalize a selection on the screen.

But most importantly, the AI assistant doesn’t intend to replace humans with robots. It instead integrates them together to deliver better service. So when you want to try something different, you can click a button and a store attendant will be right there.

Why are we cutting down on human intervention then? The point is, it is nearly impossible for a human staff to remember the shopping preferences of each customer, whereas an artificial intelligence system can do it with scale.

This is why researchers thought to apply deep learning for real world scenarios like these. Unlike the human store attendant who gets irked with your massive shopping tantrums in terms of choices, the AI system has been programmed to rather leverage the big data for making ‘smart’ decisions. What more, it gets better with time, and learns more and more based on the suggested inputs from surroundings.

We could say FashionAI is still an experiment. But Alibaba is on course to create history, if the Chinese e-commerce giant succedes in fueling life back into retail. As CEO Daniel Zhang reiterated, Alibaba is going to “digitize the offline retail world.” This is quite a first for such a line of thinking. But then, customers don’t recognize offline and online till it serves their interest.


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