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Wednesday, January 23, 2019, 21:35
AI, robots lend a hand to retailers
By Prime Sarmiento
Wednesday, January 23, 2019, 21:35 By Prime Sarmiento

Walden Lam, co-founder of Hong Kong-based fashion startup Unspun, speaks at the StartmeupHK Festival 2019 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Jan 23, 2019. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

HONG KONG – Advances in technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics enable retailers to meet the growing demand for efficient, fast and customized services, industry players said at a forum in Hong Kong Wednesday.

Analysts and retail executives who participated in the Retail’s Cutting Edge forum noted that adapting these new technological developments is important to enhance customers’ experience in the region as most Asians still shop in physical stores.

“Customers like the combination of two – both online and offline experience,” Pascal Martin, partner at the London-based consulting firm OC&C Strategy Consultants, said at the one-day forum organized by Australian publisher Inside Retail.

Retail’s Cutting Edge is one of the several events featured in the StartmeupHK Festival 2019. The festival was organized by InvestHK and StartmeupHK, from Jan 21 to 25, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Martin cited e-commerce giant Alibaba, which in 2015 opened Hema – a chain of offline supermarkets – in China. He said Alibaba's Hema concept has achieved “amazing traction” with consumers.

The future of retail, where you walk into the store and everything is on demand, is just right around the corner. 

Walden Lam, Co-founder, Unspun 

While Hema is a physical store, Alibaba uses innovative technology to make shopping easier for customers. Hema’s mobile application can also be downloaded by customers in order to scan barcodes and learn more about the products they want to purchase. The app can also be used to access their digital wallets, like Taobao and Alipay, for payment and to order groceries online.   

Ricky Szeto Wing Fu, general manager and executive director of Hung Fook Tong Group, said the Hong Kong-based herbal tea retailer rolled out “smart” vending machines last year, so that they can understand their customers better and also enhance their satisfaction.

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The smart vending machines use visual recognition technology and artificial intelligence that will help customers get a customized drink. A customer can go to any of Hung Fook Tong kiosk, get their face photographed via a camera connected to the internet – and the image will then be transmitted to a cloud-based IBM system for instant analysis.  

The customer will be analyzed based on gender, age, local climate and purchasing history. The vending kiosk will then make a “personalized” herbal product recommendation.

Szeto said these smart vending machines have also helped the company to expand its market without the high cost of opening a full-fledged store. 

For Walden Lam, co-founder of Hong Kong-based fashion startup Unspun, 3D imaging technology and proprietary algorithms not only allow his firm to produce bespoke denim trousers but also promotes sustainable fashion.

Lam said that one way for the fashion industry to reduce its carbon footprint is to get rid of excess inventory. Unspun only produces customized jeans on demand, eliminating the need for inventory.

“The future of retail, where you walk into the store and everything is on demand, is just right around the corner,” he said.

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Hong Kong-based corporate coach Fyiona Yong said the combination of cutting-edge technology and sustainability appeals to new generations of consumers – the 20- to 30-something consumers that belong to the so-called Generation Z and Generation Y, respectively.    

“With social media, we get a lot of instant news of what’s happening in the world,” Yong told China Daily at the sidelines of the forum. 

She said while corporate social responsibility and sustainable products appeal to customers across all generations, it is the more tech-savvy customers who are more vocal about their choices.

Retail’s Cutting Edge forum featured several panel discussions on how sustainability and new technology are being used in the retail space. Erik Bang, innovation lead of H&M Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Swedish fashion brand, discussed how to develop a more eco-friendly fashion industry through recycling and the use of innovative technology. 

Nicole Nguyen, head of Asia-Pacific at the Vietnam-based Infinity Blockchain Ventures, discussed the power and potential of blockchain in the retail industry. 

Tracy Mok, associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, discussed how technology developed in Hong Kong has integrated AI and 3D technologies to make fashion shopping more interactive.


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