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Accenture Lays Out AI in Retail and Sustainability in Minutes

“Let’s face it, AI is not new — in fact, we’ve been using AI for years in retail,” said Jill Standish, senior managing director and retail global lead for Accenture, kicking off a session on artificial intelligence for WWD’s virtual Sustainability Summit on May 8.

Indeed, Standish is right. With all the recent hype about chatbots and machine-made text and images, one might think data science and machine learning are completely new to brands. They’re not — but recent breakthroughs are bringing smarter, faster and more powerful tools to the table.

AI’s real and potential impact on retail looks staggering, but Standish boils it down in six minutes by sorting the tech’s retail proposition into three buckets: “One, descriptive: We used AI to say what happened in our business. Two, predictive: What will happen and what should I do about it?” she said. “But now we’ve got generative AI, which is all about generating new content — and we will be using all three of these forms in the years to come.

“But it’s with this new form, generative AI, that will truly transform the way we live and work.”

GenAI, or generative AI, uses large language models, or LLMs, to create content, from descriptive product information, marketing text and conversational chats to fantastical imagery. According to the Accenture executive, genAI combined with “traditional AI” is a potent blend that’s poised to change the nature of shopping, how retailers work and how they operate across the industry.

To illustrate, Standish offered three examples. The first paints LLMs as the new shopping influencers.

Thanks to updates by major tech platforms by Meta and Instagram, for instance, billions of consumers have access to AI features and are already using them. “What this means is that your branding really matters more than ever,” she said. Naturally, given the event’s theme, she put the lens on sustainability. “It’s time to double down on attribution around your brand and your products, and their certifications,” she continued, “akin to the way you might have done search engine optimization or SEO today.”

It also means that brands should think about whether to give LLMs access to their content, scrape the website or find their inventory and pricing. This deserves serious consideration, because this is how the bots link brands to conversations and recommendations.

The next example highlights the way AI is shifting brands’ inner workings in areas like design and operation. Human ingenuity and creativity will always matter, Standish explained, but genAI can augment the process. It’s capable of pinpointing attributes among top-selling products to create new items, as well as predicting how they’ll perform using other information like gross margin, geographic or market segment sales, and popularity in search and conversion.

In essence, genAI can shorten the sampling cycle and prove sell-throughs, which minimizes the waste or over-runs that go to landfills.

The last example, sustainability reporting, was Standish’s mic-drop moment.

She started by describing the work as necessary, but rather a drudgery, as it’s often a manual, labor-intensive affair. Now, with just a few basic prompts, AI can crank out everything from components to entire reports — and then evolve into more sophisticated models capable of generating deep insights, and comprehending and responding to complex questions about environmental impacts, social campaigns and governance. Accenture developed one such model, the ESG LLM, for that purpose, as it can quickly build reports and give access to important data and insights.

For Standish, it’s a matter of lightening employees’ load, and not just as a way to save time and effort. It’s about what happens next: “Imagine taking the hundreds and, likely, thousands of hours spent on sustainability reporting, and reallocating them to all the opportunities you’ve been contemplating for performance management and sustainable process change,” she said.

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