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Q&A: How Artificial and Human Intelligence Can Address Grocery’s Biggest Issues

Progressive Grocer talks with SymphonyAI Retail President Manish Choudhary
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Manish Choudhary
Manish Choudhary, president of SymphonyAI’s Retail CPG division, is passionate about the power of AI in fueling grocery growth.

While predictive AI may be a key part of the future of grocery retailing, the human ability to think ahead and adapt is still perennially powerful. That is a key takeaway from a recent conversation with Manish Choudhary, president of enterprise AI SaaS provider SymphonyAI’s Retail CPG division

Progressive Grocer spoke with Choudhary on a range of topics impacting grocers and how AI-driven transformation, SaaS and machine learning can help them move their businesses ahead at a time of ever-narrow margins. 

Progressive Grocer: What are some of the main trends driving the use of generative and predictive AI to solve simultaneous challenges in our industry?

Manish Choudhary: It’s not a secret that inflation has been a problem and labor has been a problem and increases are causing retailers to figure out every means of efficiency. Another market trend that is not a secret is the fight between the e-commerce channel and the physical grocery channel – there are more people shopping the e-commerce channel and e-commerce is becoming fairly diverse now. Also, the use of generative and predictive AI is really amplifying what workers are doing, and that productivity is going to create a much bigger divide between adapters and naysayers in the retail industry.

PG: How can grocers and their tech partners respond to these challenges, as technology is advancing in tandem with trends?

MC: We are responding by addressing all three trends. Starting with the biggest trend, how do retailers increase margins? They have to become customer-centric to increase margins – their supply chain, forecasting, assortment and shelf design have to become more about what consumers are doing than what CPGs have been traditionally telling them. Retailers need to increase basket size, but also increase the margins of basket size. We’ve done things in this area, like connecting supply chains and forecasting to loyalty promotions and connecting the store ops side to help the people managing stores and shelves. There are a lot of unobvious insights that humans would take a longer time to use to make decisions. 

Second, in the e-commerce trend, we believe that we are providing signals and software to allow retailers to compete with e-commerce channels or combine channels. We can also tell what is happening around competition and what optimizations they need to run from a segment point of view. 

Last but not least are GenAI and predictive AI. I believe that this is one of those moments like when the dotcom (era) came and there were naysayers and adopters. AI has been there for a long time, but we are at a moment when it is going mainstream. 

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PG: What about those who may be hesitant about genAI and predictive AI for certain reasons?

MC: We started a few years back and are among the top in GenAI and predictive AI in providing solutions, deploying solutions and making it commercially available.

A lot of the fears about adoption, from my personal point of view, come from a lack of understanding. When you don’t understand something, you look at it as a glass half empty. 

PG: Things are moving quickly, but what are some of the most notable accelerations in this space?

MC: Back three to five years ago, you had to be a data or AI person to work with AI, but now with the advancements, especially with OpenAI, it has moved significantly so you don’t need to understand the technology. You do have to understand the business so you can ask the relevant questions and get the relevant answers. That’s a shift, and more people are moving toward analyzing data to understand the information and ask questions to the AI models. For example, you may have to make a strategic decision if you will measure on profitability. 

PG: How does this play out for the shopper?

MC: In very simplistic terms, when a consumer wants to buy a bottle of ketchup, we want to make it easy. They are going to make a decision anyway – what if we can help them?

PG How can you combine leadership vision with these capabilities?

MC:  This is a boardroom conversation. Investors and customers are asking what they (retail leaders) will do about it. We are doing more c-suite meetings and we have ‘bootcamps’ where we bring in chief merchants and their teams including category managers and other people who are making decisions. It’s a class in which we talk about what they need to change skillsets and get their arms around how predictive AI can transform their business. 

PG: What are some emerging areas of opportunity in retail, in your opinion?

MC: One thing we are focusing on is taking technology and putting it into grocery at convenience. More people are going to places like QuikTrip, Shell and BP and stopping in longer. What they do for 20 minutes when their EV is charging, for example, is to buy milk, apples, and other usual things that they would have gone to a grocery store to pick up. It is convenience for fuel and for food, and I have a feeling that trend will grow. 

PG: How personally excited are you about the possibilities of these technologies?

MC: The market indicators are telling us that this is just the start -- it is that sort of transformation. Of course, skeptics will say it’s a bubble, but these are too big not to be true. 

Consumer behaviors are changing faster than ever now. I look at the next generation and how their behaviors as consumers are very different. They go on mobile phones, and want to order certain things online and buy certain things in the store – and they expect technology to solve problems.

More than anything else, I am a technologist. I live with it, I ask questions.

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