business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

 There’s an argument we make here about the realities of retail and technology (and we certainly made it at the recent Technology Summit Kevin and I led at the National Grocers Association Convention.) 

It’s simply this: technology for its own sake is a path to nowhere. In contrast, technology that cuts costs, reduces friction and improves the customer experience should always be the goal. And with that in mind we need to consider one of the hottest current issues: artificial intelligence.

AI is more than a fad, as it seems to hold the promise of unlocking an incredible range of activities that on the good side could lead to countless improvement in our lives and to the negative, well, we’ve all seen the movies about the rise of sentient machines. 

But putting aside fears of a cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger traveling from the future to do some grocery shopping, AI might well offer some interesting solutions to countless current business problems.

Let’s start with labor, possibly the single most talked about issue in retail these days. Armed with artificial intelligence it’s possible to imagine a near term future where smart machines take over repetitive tasks in stores and warehouses, allowing staffers to focus on customers in ways that no machine could ever replicate.  As the Washington Post reported this past weekend, AI offers the promise of impacting countless industries, including retail, in different ways.

Given the competitive nature of the industry it would behoove everyone to carefully consider one quote in that article: “We’re moving to where AI is going to be embedded in a lot of things so we can increase associate productivity and reduce friction for members,” Pete Rowe, Sam’s vice president of tech at Walmart, said.

At Walmart, AI is already being used for cleaning floors, checking for out-of-stocks and now with a virtual assistant called Ask Sam, which workers can use to get information on products and prices to quickly respond to customers. 

It’s unlikely to stop there. The New York Times recently reported on the improvements and challenges evidenced by newer versions of AI. The story includes interesting AI demands such as asking the computer for a joke about Madonna, or more specifically showing the inside of someone’s refrigerator and asking simply, what can I make for dinner with those items? 

From the New York Times

It’s a small leap from that to having AI kiosks in stores and on store apps that help shoppers come up with recipes and a list of the needed products specific to their needs, such as family members with food allergies or nuanced preferences. And just like that, AI finds another way to improve the customer experience.

The simplest truth about technology is that something new is always coming. Keep in mind two stories Kevin reported on Monday of this week. One was about the increasing likelihood of 3D created food, something that once seemed only possible in science fiction. And the other was on the recent passing of Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel who once opined that every two years processing speed would double while prices would come down.

Like it or not, we’re all in the technology business now and there’s no chance the pace is going to slow down to let anyone catch up.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at

His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.

For information about hiring Michael to speak at your next meeting or conference, click here.