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SPECS 2021: Artificial intelligence comes to retail construction

AI is becoming a mainstream solution in retail construction.

Automated and robotic systems have a growing presence in the retail construction field.

At Chain Store Age’s recent 57th annual SPECS physical retail conference, two sessions provided attendees with timely insight on how artificial intelligence (AI)-based technology is transforming the retail construction industry.

Chris Varney, executive VP, Bureau Veritas; Dan Wirtz, founder, Windsor Realty Group; Mandy Rowe, director, franchise development, True Rest Float Spa; and Kathleen Walch and Ron Schmelzer, managing partners and principal analysts for Cognilytica, reviewed AI innovations that are taking retail construction to the next level. Here are three highlights from their presentations.

Using AI-equipped drones, retailers can perform video flyovers of facilities and obtain 3D images. These images can then be used for purposes such as evaluating a building before purchase or inspecting a property for damage after a fire, flood, or other casualty incident.

“You can look at drone images in your office and share them with colleagues, vendors, and contractors,” said Varney. “You can perform site mapping with 2D or 3D graphics, and also create a site map with issues noted in high-resolution imagery.”

Retailers can also leverage drones to perform photo mapping of a property (“we still love our photos,” commented Varney), with the bonus of being able to drill down into any picture with high-resolution imagery.

Leveraging a drone’s AI capabilities, Varney said retailers can also identify hard-to-spot issues such as stresses on pavement. Furthermore, he pointed out that drones can serve as a handy means of inspecting or touring a facility that may be restricted or unsafe for entry due to COVID-19.

Site selection
Panelists also explained how AI and machine learning (ML) technology can serve as an invaluable aid to the all-important task of selecting a site for a new franchise store.

“Predictive modeling can assist clients with real estate services,” said Wirtz. “A lot of people say, ‘find me a great site.’ We’re in big trouble if we can’t be more predictive in finding a successful location.”

Wirtz also said that franchise retailers can utilize predictive modeling to better understand who their target customer is and how far they would need to travel to reach a specific location. Rowe added that AI technology can assist franchisees, who are often first-time entrepreneurs without construction experience, better understand their physical stores.

“There are often a lot of change orders (with first-time franchisees), which frustrates the general contractors,” said Rowe. “Using virtual reality imaging ahead of time can minimize change orders by showing franchisees how their plumbing and electricity works. It makes site selection more efficient and reduces change fees.”

Robots are increasingly being used as tools to streamline retail construction workflows. Schmelzer discussed the rising prevalence of “cobots” – trainable robots designed to work alongside humans, within retail construction.

“As a cobot keeps iterating, it learns variability,” explained Schmelzer. “A traditional programmed robot for a task does an exact movement with everything at a certain distance.”

The ability of cobots to learn from their surroundings and perform tasks with variable functions enables them to perform higher-level retail functions, such as picking and packing. On construction sites, cobots are being used to assist humans with jobs such as bricklaying, pouring concrete, installing drywall, and surveying construction sites. This helps retailers speed construction, reduce costs, and limit injuries to human workers.

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