According to a recent survey conducted by Workday Inc., a leading provider of enterprise cloud applications for financial management and human resources, 48% of business executives in Italy welcome the opportunities offered by Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, compared to 50% in America and 46% in the APJ area. Furthermore, 44% of companies in EMEA have made changes to make their businesses agile enough to reallocate resources quickly and at scale.

After the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU is proposing a new legal framework for Artificial Intelligence: the EU AI Act. The aim is to strengthen governance over data quality, transparency and human oversight, encouraging greater trust in the technology. Enthusiasm for AI and ML among EMEA business leaders, supported by regulatory advances, is helping to increase investment appetite. Companies in Northern Europe are leading the way in investing in these technologies, while those in Southern Europe are taking a more conservative approach.

The main obstacles to AI adoption are data management and excessive bureaucracy: 60 per cent of EMEA companies say their data is isolated, making it difficult to access actionable information in real time. Furthermore, only 22% of companies have made consistent progress in eliminating certain bureaucratic steps that slow down the decision-making process.

Confirmation of Italian companies’ trust in AI also comes from a second research study entitled ‘AI and Chat GPT: Perception and Usage Trends in B2B Companies’, carried out by BVA Doxa, which specifically investigated the use of chatbots based on models such as Chat GPT within B2B companies. Some interesting data emerged showing that, by 2022, 37% of companies have implemented the use of chatbots, while 47% have adopted other AI-based solutions. These numbers testify to the rapid progress in integrating AI into the corporate environment, with investments growing by 5% annually. Almost 75 per cent of companies surveyed believe that Chat GPT will have a significant and positive impact on their work and business environment in the near future.

We spoke about Artificial Intelligence with Massimo Volpe, Co-Founder Retail Hub, and curator of the ‘Innovation Village Retail’ project at Expo Riva Schuh & Gardabags.

Artificial Intelligence: opportunity or threat?

I am positive by nature and therefore, in my opinion, AI is definitely a great opportunity, provided it is in the right hands. In particular, I believe that an AI capable of learning and processing will allow us to exponentially explode our capabilities, it will transform us into something akin to ‘superhumans’. To give a practical example: if I am an executive manager who is daily harassed by a series of repetitive and mechanical tasks, I will benefit greatly from AI in terms of saving time, I will use it to speed up these kinds of tasks. The time saved I will be able to use it to develop new solutions and better strategies, for qualitatively more important work. I believe that AI will allow us to create a kind of ‘avatar’ of ourselves, who knows us and will be able to interpret, ground and implement our thoughts quickly and effectively.

What repercussions could this have on the fashion world?

In the fashion world it could mean ‘translating’ a creative idea onto paper or computer accurately and quickly. If I were a creative person, I could benefit from an intelligent machine that turns my thought into an image quickly and effectively and that above all – working with me – learns to think like me, becoming a kind of more efficient extension of myself. In a short time, the AI will become my best assistant, on par with if not better than the colleague who has been advising me for over 30 years. It will know exactly what I want and how to solve my problems. This is what I think AI will become for CEOs and creative people. The designer will accumulate experiences and translate them into his creativity. The executive will accumulate experiences and translate them into process synthesis. I don’t think these professionals will be replaced by AI, rather they will use AI to accelerate the translation of thought into action.

What do you think will happen, or is already happening, in distribution instead?

The central point is that AI understands the customer best for two reasons. The first is trivial but crucial: all the knowledge accumulated over the years by the sales assistant in his personal relationship with the customer is linked to the person himself and, therefore, when he leaves the workplace, he takes it with him. The information and insights accumulated over time by the AI will always remain with the company. This is stored know-how that, in itself, makes a difference, even before evaluating the important analytical capabilities of AI. The second reason is that AI processes past information intelligently. So, for example, if a customer buys a pair of moccasins, the AI does not propose to him to buy moccasins again, perhaps in a different colour, but based on his taste and the season, it presents him with other types of footwear in different colours.  AI is able to bring into play reasoning that until now only humans were able to process. Think also of logistics and the benefits it will gain from an AI capable of analysing data from the past and combining it with predictions of what will happen in the future based on current trends and changing habits, for instance considering the fact that people nowadays go to the office less often than in the past.

AI seems to be a technology within everyone’s reach at the moment. What, however, are the difficulties of implementing it in business processes in concrete reality?

More and more in the future, it is not the quantitative part that will make the difference, but the qualitative part. It will not be the big company, with the big budgets, that will make the difference, but the people working within it. AI is an accessible technology, because we can all download the Chat GPT app, or any other app, and grasp its potential. The difficulty arises when you have to integrate the innovation into the existing infrastructure. The real business challenge today is, on the one hand, the choice of personnel, who must be able to take on board a new way of thinking and operating, and on the other hand, structure themselves in an agile and flexible way to prepare for change. So, in this new context, Italian SMEs have an advantage because they are faster and more flexible than large structures, even if the latter have large budgets.

What advantages can AI bring to product customisation?

Up until two or three years ago, there was a lot of talk about big data, which is crucial for creating an on-demand product. The problem is that, in addition to having to collect a large amount of data, it is necessary to analyse it in order to exploit the opportunities. AI can be the magic wand that solves both problems. Let’s take an example: when I have to develop a product on demand, the first step is to create a virtual 3D version. Until yesterday, to make a 3D shoe took time and a trained team, then it went to a small photo studio, or even a simple box where you put a shoe and reproduce it. With AI we go one step further: I don’t need the studio, the shoe or the staff, because the technology makes a 3D reproduction of the shoe according to my specifications. Not only that: it can be the customer himself who directly creates the product he wants. Hyper-customisation, moreover, would make it possible to identify consumption trends based on real aggregate data, useful for offering the market products that the consumer really wants and that do not yet exist.

Another topic of great relevance in recent years is sustainability. Do you have experiences of the interaction between AI and sustainability?

Hyper-customisation in itself would be an example of sustainable consumption, as would the logistical efficiency we have already discussed. AI also allows a better analysis of returns in order to reduce them. Returns, in fact, are a cost-intensive element in online shopping and negatively affect the environment due to the double transport of the product itself. With the creation of a ‘tailor-made’ product, it is more difficult to run into a return and related costs for finances and the environment.

Is there a case history or a start-up that is making amazing use of artificial intelligence right now and that has caught your attention?

Yes, it is a Silicon Valley scale-up called Ikasi that works on hyper-customisation of customer engagement and loyalty activities. It is one of the most interesting realities we are studying. At the point of sale, for example, when you buy a product, this start-up uses AI to activate a cross-selling process that proposes related products that are truly consistent with your purchase (to simplify, if you go to buy strawberries, it proposes balsamic vinegar). It sounds trivial, but this technology works from the true and concrete reality of the consumer with positive effects on the e-commerce cart, as well as on the average receipt in the physical shop.

Innovation Retail Village at Expo Riva Schuh & Gardabags 2024

The appointment with the Innovation Retail Village, the project realised by the Riva del Garda trade fair, in collaboration with Retail Hub and with the scientific coordination of Alberto Mattiello – member of the Scientific Committee of Expo Riva Schuh & Gardabags, dedicated to the start-ups and young companies selected as the most innovative in the footwear and leather goods retail sector, is renewed in January 2024. This is a valuable opportunity for exhibitors and visitors to find the most relevant innovations for the accessory retail sector united in the same space and get a preview of them, but also for the emerging companies involved in the project, which find in the Innovation Retail Village an important springboard to launch themselves on the global market.

Massimo Volpe, Co-Founder Retail Hub