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Navigating the Human Touch in the AI Era: Transformative Strategies for Shopping Centres

As the prominence of AI continues to rise, the 2024 Global Consumer Trends Report by Mintel has revealed that 47% of UK consumers are apprehensive about increased interaction with AI, especially in areas like customer service and emergency response. 

Although this represents a significant portion of the consumer population, the majority (53%) seem comfortable with the idea of having fewer ‘human’ interactions and hanging out with ‘bots’ on the regular! According to Mintel’s research, “Young, single people in China are

finding solace and companionship with AI chatbots, documenting their ‘romances’ on social media and describing in vivid detail their unusual correspondence with the near-human ChatGPT”.

While this may be taking AI engagements (see what we did there?) to the extreme, it underscores a shifting tide, with a growing number of consumers becoming accustomed to AI, even using it as second nature.

So, what does this all mean?

With almost half of UK consumers apprehensive about frequent AI interaction, a significant cohort still values a personalised, face-to-face service and the ‘human touch.’ This presents a unique opportunity for shopping centres and marketers to tailor messages that resonate with these preferences. But to keep pace with AI adopters and promoters, they must also explore innovative ways to incorporate this technology into their sales and marketing strategies, driving results in the phygital (physical plus digital) age.

By striking a balance between the concerns and benefits of AI, shopping centres and marketers can develop nuanced, inclusive strategies that resonate with audiences on both sides of the fence, addressing their individual preferences and sentiments regarding this technology. Here are some ideas on how this could be achieved…

Smart Navigation Systems:

Instead of offering ‘static’ maps on their websites, shopping centres could develop AI-driven maps with navigation systems to help customers find specific stores or products. The AI-powered map could also provide real-time directions and information about ongoing promotions, as well as drive people to low-footfall areas. 

Language Translation Services:

Using AI-driven language translation services would provide greater assistance to visitors who speak different languages, enhancing accessibility and inclusivity. Implementing language translation services within a shopping centre could involve introducing digital signage, interactive kiosks, and mobile apps. Multilingual signage and dynamic kiosks equipped with language options would assist visitors in navigating the centre, while mobile apps would provide on-the-go translations for store directories and event details. Customer service desks could provide tablets with translation features to enhance communication with multilingual visitors.

Online, shopping centres could enhance accessibility by offering a multilingual website with a language selection option for users. Live chat support with real-time translation capabilities would ensure effective communication, while language preference settings on user profiles would dynamically adjust online content based on individual language preferences. Virtual assistants integrated into the website could further assist customers by providing information, answering queries, and facilitating online transactions in multiple languages. 

This comprehensive approach ensures a seamless and inclusive experience for visitors both within the physical shopping centre and on its online platforms.

Enhancing Accessibility Through AI:

I love how Danish tech start-up, Be My Eyes, has incorporated OpenAI’s GPT-4 into its

eponymous mobile app to create a virtual visual assistant for blind and partially-sighted people that can generate spoken words from images. This transformative technology could be utilised by shopping centres to greatly enhance accessibility and engagement for individuals with visual challenges within shopping centres. With regards to store images, for example, this technology could be harnessed to provide detailed spoken descriptions of store appearance, store locations, store layouts, products, and promotions. This would not only enable users to independently explore stores and identify products but also ensure a more immersive and inclusive shopping experience.

Chatbots to Drive Event Attendance:

Implementing an AI-powered chatbot to a shopping centre’s events page on the website would be a strategic move to enhance visitor engagement. The chatbot would serve as a real-time assistant, offering valuable information about upcoming events, answering queries, providing event recommendations, and guiding visitors through the details. This interactive tool would not only streamline the user experience but would also help boost event attendance by ensuring potential attendees have all the necessary information at their fingertips.

Immersive Shopping Centre Trails:

AI could be used to significantly elevate traditional shopping centre trails by introducing an augmented reality (AR) experience. This would entail overlaying digital information onto the physical environment to create innovative trails where participants use their smartphones to unlock virtual clues, hidden messages, and interactive encounters with seamlessly integrated digital characters. This approach would not only boost engagement but also deliver a genuinely immersive and interactive experience for visitors, injecting excitement into their journey through the shopping centre and leaving them with an appetite for more. 

AI-powered Predictive Maintenance:

Another impactful application of AI for enhancing emergency response in a shopping centre is the use of AI-powered predictive maintenance for critical infrastructure. By analysing data from various sensors and systems, AI algorithms can predict potential failures or issues in essential infrastructure components such as elevators, escalators, fire suppression systems, and power supply. Proactively addressing these issues before they escalate can prevent disruptions during emergencies, ensuring that crucial facilities are operational when needed most. This predictive maintenance approach contributes to the overall resilience and preparedness of a shopping centre during emergency situations. From a marketing and communications perspective, these are strong, positive messages that can be shared with shoppers to increase their confidence in a centre and promote a sense of comfort and happiness while visiting. 

Now For The Lowdown…

AI can – and is already – being used to enhance customer experience, both physically and digitally, and has enormous potential to link these two worlds to the advantage of retailers and consumers. But, at least for now, AI remains a step behind when it comes to being ‘human’ – something felt by just under half the UK population, who are fearful that it will remove interactions with ‘real people’. It is therefore down to us, as marketers, to inject a ‘humanness’ into this technology so that as many people as possible can access and benefit from its uses.