If Sex And The City were made today, we would likely see a few changes in the plot—the cast would be more racially diverse, Carrie would be a high-flying fashion influencer with a blog instead of a column, and the quartet of friends would certainly swap endless tours of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue for online shopping and fashion apps. This is 2018, and the world is addicted to online shopping, our choice of #ootd is driven by a technological ecosystem where store inventory is displayed on phones and the touch-and-feel experience of old-fashioned shopping is replaced by cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence.

Imagine an online web store, or app. Picture this: hundreds of products in various categories—from workwear to lingerie—displayed in photographs, videos and 360-degree models, queries and customization requests processed by chatbots, try-before-you-buy options and new product recommendations based on shopping history. These finer details that make up a satisfying customer journey are made possible by harnessing machine learning.

Artificial Intelligence can work both ways—enabling discovery for consumers in a market cluttered with choices and empowering brands and creators to market their products effectively. Delhi-based fashion discovery app Findow addresses both parties in the transaction. Founder Zarine Bajaj describes her platform as “Zomato for fashion", allowing customers to find fashion brands and stores based on geo-tagged information, trend reports and feedback from other users. Simultaneously, Findow’s smart technology platform is designed to help retailers automate everyday operations, from product inventory and order processing to customer relations. “The app is a great help for new designers, as we enable them to manage their business better," says Bajaj, adding that her team is also working on virtual store formats to connect brands seamlessly with customers.

Earlier this year, Artificial Intelligence start-up Vue.ai, whose clients include Levi’s, Diesel, Cosabella and Tata CLiQ, launched a product to analyse garments and generate human models, negating the need for hours of catalogue photography and digitalization. Much of Artificial Intelligence’s role in fashion retail is aimed at automating the mundane activities that consume hours of human labour, says Atul Rai, founder of Staqu Technologies, a Gurugram-based start-up that has developed image-matching systems, automated meta-tag filters and visual searches for online fashion retail brands. “I believe human beings should not have to spend hours doing repetitive activities," he says. “For instance, users look for products using certain tags (attributes) and e-commerce sites hire curators to do the work. But the same work can be done through Artificial Intelligence much faster."

AI is also applied to traditionally customer-facing personnel roles. Bengaluru-based tech start-up AskSid works primarily with brands in Europe, creating chatbots and facilitating multi-channel conversations that enable brands to understand consumer requirements based on data. “The bots must be intelligent, building the conversation," says Sanjoy Roy, co-founder of the start-up. “For that, we must be domain experts who understand fashion ontology." AskSid draws from a repository of over 40,000 actual consumer conversations to create information and talking points which are fed to the bots. The chatbots are trained to answer questions, but also discover new ones. Roy cites an example from one of their clients, whose customers requested images of the back of a garment. The brand was able to address the concern because it had data extracted from automated conversations between customers and bots.

AI’s impact goes beyond the online experience. In February, American fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger partnered with IBM and the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, to explore the role of AI in trend-forecasting and design. The Reimagine Retail project required students to use IBM Research AI tools and Hilfiger image libraries and create future-smart designs. There’s also Jacquard by Google, a weaving technology that enables communication, navigation and audio features in clothing—its first design is a trucker jacket created by Levi’s with snap buttons on the sleeve that connect the garment with the Jacquard app; however, critics have pointed out that the jacket must offer more functions to justify the price ($350; around 24,000) it commands.

Internationally, stores like Rebecca Minkoff and Nordstrom have experimented with smart mirrors which customers can use to browse other looks in the store, while adidas employs the Run Genie tool in select stores to recommend shoes based on how much a customer walks. Some stores also employ heat-map analysis from camera networks to assess customer behaviour and drive sales.

Artificial Intelligence can certainly ease some of the mundane activities that the retail business entails. But chatbots don’t have every answer, Roy acknowledges. “When human intervention becomes necessary, we connect it to the executive in the most seamless manner possible," he says.

AI application is still in its early stages, especially in India, says Bajaj. “AI is undoubtedly the next big move but one can also sense the fashion industry’s hesitation in adapting it in its entirety, especially among upcoming retail brands and fashion designers. The transition will come once they start introducing themselves to better formats for the development of their brand," she adds.

The potential of AI is on the rise, and the future promises more advance technologies. Amazon is already testing cashier-less stores in the US and Rai says research could make it possible for consumers to upload their image online and try on garments. “We might even have clothes designed by AI in the future," he adds.

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