Last week, Wendy Buzzard, a successful independent rep and a member of IHFRA’s Executive Committee, pointed out that as artificial intelligence continues to play a bigger role in the home furnishings sector, IHFRA needs to be a source of AI information for reps who will need to understand and embrace this technology if they intend to remain in the game.
To be honest, while I have a superficial understanding of AI, prior to Wendy’s wake-up call, I had not spent much time at all considering the play it is having, and will have, in our sector.
After spending a good bit of time on the web reading various studies, reports and blogs, I’ve put together a basic list of areas that will and are already being enhanced by AI.
First off, I think AI will touch and enhance just about every facet of the home furnishings sector, from design ideation and prototyping to manufacturing, marketing and customer interaction.
Having said that, I think if there has been a reluctance to embrace AI in home furnishings, it has been fueled by a fear that AI — and scores of evil robots waiting in the wings — will challenge and possibly eliminate the need for human involvement.
To me, a more realistic picture involves more of a balancing act that has humans utilizing the technology to create, manufacture, distribute and market new furniture that boasts innovative designs, production and process.
With the capacity to use algorithms set to specific parameters, AI can unlock literally endless design options.
The algorithms can also predict consumer demand for these new items. This will help manufacturers in terms of cost and production runs while helping retailers manage their inventories properly, thereby avoiding over- or understock situations.
Another critical link that AI can benefit is our supply chain, which many observers would say has been a weak, or at least unpredictable, link for quite some time. AI should easily be able to streamline and strengthen the supply chain by optimizing shipping routes, the replenishment of inventory and by taking time and cost out of the entire shipping process.
Augmented reality will continue to make inroads helping consumers to visualize how certain pieces of furniture will look in their actual rooms. While this is not new, observers agree that this technology will continue to become easier to use and more realistic.
In terms of providing consumers with increasing levels of information and support, AI-powered chatbots along with virtual assistants are providing customers will the most current product information and are delivering it in real time. These tools are also able to help customers with questions about product availability, product support, order taking and returns.
Manufacturers as well as retailers can also benefit from AI-powered recommendation engines that are able to analyze customer’s browsing and purchasing history and then identify and suggest personalized products and related accessories.
Product marketers, be they manufacturers or retailers, can benefit from AI programs that are not only able to identify the best marketing channels, but can also create highly targeted, highly specific marketing campaigns.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, can utilize AI-driven robotics and CNC routers to boost production, increase efficiency and minimize waste. And AI’s capabilities to perform quality control can save companies the frustration and expense of having to make good for problem products.
At the end of the day, it is not just reps who need to get on board the AI train.
At a time when speed to market, products that offer innovative designs and construction, and customer satisfaction are at the top of everyone’s list, none of us can afford not to be cutting edge.
If we are not cutting edge, chances are good that our customers will cut us.