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Intu Digital's Karen Harris runs rule over retail technology trends

As managing director of shopping centre property owner Intu’s digital arm, Karen Harris is aware she has a privileged position in assessing new and emerging technology’s potential impact on the retail space.

A key part of the job role is to visit technology companies around the world, test new equipment ahead of the wider market, and gain a picture of the possibly disruptive solutions being brought to market.

“My passion is new technology and making sure I’m ahead of the curve and testing new tech in real time with live audiences,” she notes.

However, Harris fully acknowledges it is difficult to predict what new technologies will stick, saying that it is often “counter intuitive”, musing: “All the good ideas never work, and actually some of the worst ideas are those that get traction.

“Nobody, no matter how much they think they know, knows what is actually going to happen.”

Nevertheless, two key technologies retailers with a significant chance of mass adoption, according to Harris, are computer vision and mixed reality (MR). She believes both have the capacity to be transformative to a sector that is already undergoing much disruption and change.

Computer vision

Visual search technology, where customers can use online imagery rather than words to prompt relevant product listings, has gained momentum over the last year, with retailers such as Farfetch, Marks & Spencer and Wayfair deploying it on their websites, following early adopters such as Asos.

Intu itself embedded a feature on its website in 2018, allowing customers to find similar or exact products at its tenants’ stores based on photographs shared online.

Harris terms it “computer vision” technology as opposed to visual search, and she predicts it to be “one of the biggest game changers in retail” due to its apparent and increasing accuracy.

“We are essentially a shopping directory and we have a huge amount of products – six million items – but it is difficult to categorise them because every retailer does it in different ways,” she explains.

“So, we are using computer vision to identify the elements of the item a customer might want. The customer themselves can pick the sleeve length, hemline, neck line, and material they want, and computer vision automatically brings back the products."

Mixed reality

Harris has been a long-term advocate of MR, and was one of the first retail professionals in the UK to test tech company Magic Leap’s headset a few years back. The tech, which is linked to eyewear that overlays digital information on what a user can see in real life, is being trialled by the likes of Wayfair.

Whoever brings the technology to mass market, whether it’s Magic Leap, Microsoft through its Hololens MR product, or Apple – which is reportedly exploring ventures in this space – Harris argues it could be as transformative as the internet itself.

“If we can blend digital more seamlessly within our physical world to help us, rather than have our heads down in a small computer, that will be a significantly better experience for everybody,” she argues.

Talking about the retail market and the rapid rise of technology in general, Harris muses: “There’s huge disruption in the industry, but for me disruption can be a really good thing because it means opportunity.”

Visitors to The Retail Expo on 1 May will be able to hear more from Harris, who will be on the Operations Stage at London Olympia assessing the latest tech trends, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation as part of the ‘Big Debate’ on day one the event.

Among the subjects she is set to tackle includes the fear that robotics, automation, and AI will replace human workers, and where human and machine will sit together in the retail mix.

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