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‘People, our staff, standing on the shoulders of robots and digital capabilities, are the future of e-commerce’

Like a fossilised dinosaur footprint, e-commerce has left a lasting mark on retail, yet is increasingly absent from the customer’s mind.

E-commerce brought us the disciplines, process and technology shift that helped retailers photograph, describe and structure their products digitally; introduced algorithmic approaches to selling; connected the web experience with the ERP (enterprise resource planning) backbone for stock visibility, service levels and order orchestration, yet the customer doesn’t care.

As soon as e-commerce disciplines put the web on to consumer’s phones, the hard work was taken for granted. Now a retailer is not rewarded for being multichannel – web, mobile, store, phone and print – but rather punished if they are not.

The sheer extent of data created and used by e-commerce, in real time, across devices and services, focused our minds on big data – supra-human quantities of information that needed to be in a cloud, accessible readily by all systems, rather than locked within our businesses.

In the last year we’ve been allowing the computer systems to “ask” their own questions and the machine-learning age is upon us. Rather than a distilled data cube awaiting our queries, the system anticipates the main questions, tells us the answers and suggests other things to look at.

Data, algorithms, processing power then gain a voice interface – it’s audible magic. Software converts our many accents, slang phrases and specialist requests, then runs processes and answers us. As we start taking Siri, Alexa and Google’s Voice for granted, robots reach the market with animatronic designs – not fake human, but certainly anthropomorphic, blending behavioural ticks with machine-learning and algorithms.

Now, surely, is the time to declare the end of humanity, as robot-commerce becomes e-commerce’s apotheosis? We see how the precursors of systems, processes, algorithms, data and code have come together to supplant retail as we know it. Then again, perhaps not.

Amazon Go, the anticipated checkout-less store format, is not devoid of humans. Rather, they are providing support, customer interaction and, in the case of the in-store chefs, experience and education. Amazon is removing the tedium of queuing and checkout, and investing in the human.

During a retail tour in New York last month, a group of European retailers descended without warning on the new adidas flagship. Rather than reject us, the staff took it in the their stride to split us into two groups and give a basement-to-rafters tour of the store, discussing architecture, brand positioning, retail theatre, cross-channel performance, digital in store and more. The same happened at Rebecca Minkoff, Nike, Pirch. Highly personable, proficient, deeply-knowledgeable staff who were able to build upon a platform of retail, e-commerce, mobile and personalisation, and really engage with consumers. The role of the human is in the creation of stores, narratives that help the brand live with the customer, before and after the moment of the sale.

E-commerce capabilities are vital in modern retail. They are a minimum viable capability, the table stakes of commerce. However, the new opportunity to excel comes from integrating the disciples of e-commerce and digital retail with data, cloud services and retail wow. Together with the empowered effect of human connection and service, retailers can create a memorable and valuable experience that elevates the interaction above simple competence.

People, our staff, standing on the shoulders of robots and digital capabilities, are the future of e-commerce – augmented humanity and the next phase in retail’s development.