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167: What Role Does AI Have to Play in the Future of Independent Retail?

Written by Rob Stott

May 9, 2023

With the meteoric rise of tools like ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence-powered, content-producing platforms, it’s only natural to wonder what role these tools can and will play in retail. Some brands are already looking to integrate an AI strategy into their businesses, including Nationwide Marketing Group’s digital team. We chat with Cyrille Aragon, director of digital strategy at NMG, and explore the possibilities of AI in retail.


 

Rob Stott: All right, we are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast, and despite the title, we promise you this one wasn’t plugged into some chat program and generated out. These are two real people talking about artificial intelligence and things like ChatGPT. And I’m excited to get to dive into that today with Cyrille Aragon, our Director of Digital Strategy for Site On Time. Man, how you doing?

Cyrille Aragon: Doing good, doing good. How about you?

Rob Stott: I’m all right. Can’t complain. We’re here. We’re kicking it. And an interesting topic, a conversation you and I had, we’re following up on it, really, just one of those hallway conversations at primetime that got us thinking, “Man, maybe some more people would benefit from hearing the things we’re talking about.” But what an interesting topic to be able to dive into. I’m excited about it, man. I don’t know about you.

Cyrille Aragon: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. This is the only thing that’s been on my plate for the last six months is “How are we going to utilize this in some way to help our membership?” Right?

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s a neat tool and I know a lot of different ways that it can go, too. But before we dive into AI and these chat programs, tell us, for those that don’t know you, a little bit about yourself, your background, and your role here at Nationwide.

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, I’m Cyrille. I live in Monroe, Georgia, which no one’s ever heard of. It’s about 20 minutes outside of Athens, Georgia. Happily married. We have two boys and a girl on the way in about a month, so super excited and also terrified.

Rob Stott: Congratulations. Yeah, right? It’s like a congratulations, but uh oh.

Cyrille Aragon: No, for sure. Thank you. Yeah. And yes, my background, I’ve been in digital marketing ever since the very start of my career. I interned and then eventually got promoted to a full-time employee at a large optical retailer called National Vision. And so if you’ve heard of America’s Best Contacts and Eyeglasses, Eyeglass World.

Rob Stott: We got an eye doctor’s appointment a little later today for our kindergartner. So maybe I’ll end up swinging by one of those before we know it.

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah, for sure. And during that time, basically, I was managing digital campaigns for one of the brands, and it was something like 100 or so store locations. So yeah, quite a bit. A lot to manage, and it was super fun, arduous first year of my career. And then, yeah, after leaving there, I worked at a small agency in Atlanta where I got to work with a lot of cool brands. Especially for a company that size, I didn’t think we’d have high profile clients like Nissan and Amazon and things like that. So that was cool. And then yeah, basically, right when the pandemic happened, this is when I came to Site On Time. So yeah, been here ever since.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. I think about your team, because we started, I want to say, around the same time. So you say right when the pandemic … I was October 19, right around then, too. A little bit later for you, a couple months later?

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah. April 2020, actually.

Rob Stott: Yeah, there you go. So right in the thick of it.

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah.

Rob Stott: That’s crazy. I mean, interesting transition period to be able to come in and see your space took off right away, people leaning into those digital tools and stuff. But in just the last three years, how’s the role changed for you over time?

Cyrille Aragon: It’s crazy because I’ve never worked remotely, and so obviously I interviewed at the Site On Time office, but I never got to work there. And so having to work in that environment with my team and then learning how to lead and manage from a virtual environment, that was hard, right? And then also from a strategy standpoint, it’s like, “Okay, the consumer behavior now is people are very risk averse, and they don’t want to risk going into the stores or whatever. How do we adapt our digital marketing strategies to help with that and still be able to help our membership?” So that was definitely the challenge.

Rob Stott: Yeah, no, I mean, it’s ever ongoing, too, right? Even before, people getting comfortable with the idea of shopping and all that. So how can we leverage these types of tools and get people back in the store? It’s awesome work, and you guys are doing some great things down there. You think of digital tools and having to adapt. Nothing more prevalent, I think, right now in just the talk of what’s going on in this space than these chat tools. You’ve heard the names, ChatGPT and the others that are out there. So before we dive too deep into them, what can you tell us just about them and what they … Set the stage for anyone that might not … They hear the name, but don’t really know what it is. What are these tools that we’ve been hearing so much about?

Cyrille Aragon: For sure. I think the most popular one is the one you mentioned, right? ChatGPT. which funny enough, it only started blowing up in October or November of last year, but they’ve been working on this tool since 2015. So good for them. Good for that company. And at first, when me and my team were first exploring this back in November, it was a cool little fun thing that we would play with, and we didn’t really think too much of it, but we knew AI was on its way to being a thing. Fast-forward to now, and not only has ChatGPT had some updates and grown and evolved, but many, many, many AI tools have come out of this that’s more than just the chatbot side, right? It’s build text, or I mean, sorry, build images with text, build videos with text, anything you can imagine at this point-

Rob Stott: Yeah, I think just recently I saw someone … I forget the name of the tool, but people are using it to create professional headshots of themselves and-

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah. I know exactly what you’re talking about. Yes.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Cyrille Aragon: I forgot what it was called, but yes, definitely. And really, sky is the limit now. People are getting super creative in figuring out how we can use this new technology, I guess, to make everything easier.

Rob Stott: I mean, we’ve been hearing, I think, for years about AI. I think about the appliance space, and there’s things like LG and Samsung have their appliances that have their … For LG, I think it’s ThinkIQ, think ThinQ or something like that, and it dives into the appliance can self-diagnose if there’s an issue and then call. So there’s AI in … It’s not new necessarily. These chat programs and the other things that we’re seeing pop up, is it some sort of, I don’t know, did AI find its key application and that’s why it exploded, or was there some sort of moment that you think resulted in this proliferation of all these different use cases right now?

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah, for sure. It’s really hard to say. So yes, AI as a topic, as a thing, has been around for forever, right? But it seemed like only a select few people were doing something with it or even had access to it. I think what’s cool with ChatGPT is that it’s free and anybody can use it. When I first discovered it, it was because on LinkedIn I follow a lot of digital marketers and other SEOs and things like that, and posts were going around about how to use this tool to make your life easier. And I was like, “No way it can do that,” right? But I started trying it, and it’s like, “Oh crap.” And then, of course, ChatGPT reaches national news and all these things. I think that really helped it tremendously, not only the tool itself, but AI in general. And now we live in this world of everything AI.

Rob Stott: Yeah. It’s, I mean, crazy. And I hate to harp on the one tool, but I think about just you mentioned playing around with it and seeing the possibilities, setting up an account and just asking it a couple questions and thinking from the communication side of what’s possible and seeing … It comes back with some really unique things, depending on what you ask it. If it’s like, “I need an article on this,” there’s concerns I’m sure that we can get into and things like that about what that actually means and where that information is coming from.

But the accuracy with which these things are coming back is really unique, and it gets to there are a lot of different use cases and applications. So I’m curious from your seat, and I know this is something you’re diving into is, “Okay, well, it’s a chat tool,” but what’s the retail application here? What are you guys discovering from that perspective, and have you found a way or multiple ways that it really could apply to the retail industry?

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah, I think so. Using our operations as an example, and truly, this isn’t too integrated into our processes yet because I want to be very delicate with how we use it, right? But for example, back to the article part that you were talking about, yes, it can spit out some great stuff, but it’s so not human. So you’re still having to check for accuracy. But at the very least, it’s eliminated writer’s block, right? There’s no need to sit in front of your paper or your computer and just sit there for 10 minutes thinking about, “What do I want to write about?” If you know a single word in your topic, just throw that in there and let’s see what ChatGPT gives us, and then I’m sure the gears will turn, right?

Rob Stott: Right.

Cyrille Aragon: And so we’ve done small tests here and there, and we’ve been able to make our writing times faster with articles and things like social media posts and ad copy. It serves as a great foundation, I guess you could say. So yeah.

Rob Stott: That’s a great term. And again, thinking from the writing standpoint, and even journalists out there that may or may not, or the retailer that has their journalist by night or something like that, the thing they think about is, “Oh, it’s coming from my job,” right? That’s the first question is, “These things are coming from my job.” But your point about it’s the foundation. You see the things that come out of this that are translated to you. It is a foundation. There’s not the color commentary. I think of, from a journalist perspective, the quotes. It’s not going to generate quotes from a source that you have that really add to the context of a story. So I can imagine, of course there’s going to be concerns because it’s a new technology, not familiar with it and what it’s capable of, and it’ll be interesting to see how it gets used and the impacts on certain industries. But I love that word that you used, “foundation.” That’s what sticks with me, you saying that.

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And who knows? Maybe one day, right? Maybe it’s more than a foundation one day.

Rob Stott: Right.

Cyrille Aragon: Something we’ll have to think about. But-

Rob Stott: The more we feed, right? It’s one of those ever learning tools. So the more we use it, who knows? But well, actually, funny enough, I asked it because you play around with it and you’re just curious how you can use it. I wanted to do an interview, right? So I was like, “What are some great …” And here I’m giving away the punchline I was going to give at the end here. I was asking it for some great interview questions on a podcast about AI. And what it did was it spat back out to me, a Q&A as if I was interviewing ChatGPT itself. Like, “Hey, I’m ChatGPT and-“

Cyrille Aragon: Nice.

Rob Stott: Like nine questions’ worth of questions and answers of an actual interview with ChatGPT. So I say that it doesn’t spit out quotes, but here we are. It’s going to be quoting itself before we know it.

Cyrille Aragon: Right. Yeah.

Rob Stott: It’s crazy.

Cyrille Aragon: For all we know, it thinks it’s human, right?

Rob Stott: Right. Oh, that’s scary. But at the same time, really cool because I’m sure … We don’t have them implemented, to your point, not implemented within Nationwide yet. But I’m sure in your research of and just following of these types of tools, I’m sure you’ve come across some really cool applications or how retailers are using it. Are there any that come to mind when you think of an AI strategy within retail that stand out to you that just are really neat or, like I said, caught your attention?

Cyrille Aragon: For sure. Yeah, I think the use cases that could apply to retail the most, and not that I’ve necessarily seen it so far, but you can use ChatGPT to help with your market research. There are plug-ins within ChatGPT where you throw in a competitor’s URL and it does a complete competitive analysis of what is going on there.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah, just crazy, crazy things, especially when it comes to the marketing side of things. And then when it comes to general operations, you can have ChatGPT link to your email. It can help you write emails. So even if you don’t use it at a grand scale, that at least saves you a little bit of time as a retailer, as any business, really.

Rob Stott: Right.

Cyrille Aragon: And yeah, I was actually doing a little bit of research yesterday and this morning, and the different plugins that users you and me have created in ChatGPT is insane. With one click, you can write an entire book, you can do a video script, you can do code. It’s insane.

Rob Stott: So this is getting really in the weeds of the techy side, but I’m pretty sure I also saw, again, we’re following this, the stories that we’re able to come across are probably a little different than other people, but I’m pretty sure I saw someone use, whether it was ChatGPT or another tool, use the program to write a Google Chrome plugin that they ended up selling and making a boatload of money off of, and they hadn’t taken a single coding class, but the platform was able to write the code for that plugin, and it was something that no one had thought of before. So something like that.

But down to of the examples you mentioned, I think one of the things we hear of so often, especially during prime times, and I think of the social media NLAs that a lot of your team ran that we were involved in as well, people, they’re concerned about the time that it takes if they don’t have a dedicated person to create social media posts and things like that. You mentioned the time saving. Here’s an opportunity, a tool that you could leverage to create those posts if you don’t have the mental capacity on a day-to-day basis because you’ve got so many other hats you’re wearing, ask it for a list of a bunch of different social media posts that you could write, or that it could write for you, rather, to take that workload off of you and just make life easier, make the job a little bit more streamlined, honestly, for you.

Cyrille Aragon: Exactly. And actually, there have been prompts that people have published where it literally makes a PowerPoint presentation for you just based on a sentence that you type in. So if we ever wanted go that route, right? It’s available to us.

Rob Stott: Crazy thing, I would love to see, again, I said I lifted the veil before I was going to tell you at the end that these were questions generated by ChatGPT for a podcast. But you think about NLAs, I would love to see an NLA that you just ask ChatGPT to create an NLA for you on something, maybe it’s AI in general, and then just let people know, “Hey, by the way, this was an AI generated Learning Academy Class,” and just see what the reaction is. I’m sure it would be amazing, first of all.

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah, for sure. You know what?

Rob Stott: It might be a thing. Don’t let them know ahead of time, but then by the end of it, just be like, “Hey, did you know?” You’re there. You’re not going to just blind, again, for the concern around, “Okay, well are these things going to pop up everywhere?” I think it’s got to require a little bit of oversight from the people using it.

Cyrille Aragon: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: I don’t want to get down the path of talking about whether it’s ethical and things like that, but I can imagine you using these types of tools and knowing that you’re asking it for something and it gives you this learning, and we’ll use the Learning Academy example, and just knowing that you can take that, but then it’s on you to make sure that the information is accurate. And so there is still that-

Cyrille Aragon: Exactly.

Rob Stott: … that human element to it so that it’s not just throwing random things out there and we’re just like willy-nilly following, blindly, these AI outputs.

Cyrille Aragon: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, because anybody in the crowd, for example, in an NLA, they’ll catch you if you slip, right?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Cyrille Aragon: They’ll know if it’s just a straight-up copy and paste or whatever from ChatGPT.

Rob Stott: If it looks like and smells like, it probably is. Right? So yeah, we’re not going to be able to get that by our members. It’ll be cool to see that. If you do do that, don’t tell me, one. Now I know, next time I’m going to be sitting in on all your NLAs, but it’ll be unique to see if that actually comes to fruition. So, I mean, we’ve covered a lot of areas of this, but when you talk about that AI strategy in general and implementing that into your business, and I don’t even know if we’ve gotten this far to defining what it actually means, but a retailer listening, if they’re like, “Well, there’s so many different ways to go about using AI, it sounds like, from just what we’re talking about.” But if they want to build out that, what does it actually mean to build out an AI strategy or integrate these things? What does that look like?

Cyrille Aragon: Well, I think I would say the lowest hanging fruit when implementing this into your current business is to find ways to use it to just make everybody’s lives easier because then productivity is increased, and that means less costs and more margin and et cetera, et cetera. But I would look operationally to see how you can use this technology. If any retailer is listing, if they have an in-house marketing team, they need to be the first ones to be exploring this tool and figuring out how they can make those lives easier, right?

A simple thing that I use it for is, okay, I know that there’s a certain persona in this market where it’s like, grandmas just really love to buy these refrigerators, and I need ad copy to be able to write to them. I’m not the most creative person. I’ll know if it looks good and it’s hitting the point, but “Help me.” Like, “AI, help me out,” and then have it generate that for you. As simple as that. Help with emails, do those kinds of things.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Yeah.

Cyrille Aragon: And then on a broader scale, which is something that I’ve put on my plate is for the entire membership, when they’re thinking about their marketing strategies, whether they’re doing it in-house or with Site On Time or RWS or whatever the case, how can we use this tool to help with either keep our competitors at bay or just win more market share, anything like that? That’s something that I’ve been stewing on right now. And so yeah, I’m hoping to have better answers there in the future. But yeah, it’s on my mind.

Rob Stott: Well, the interesting thing you’re talking about is where does it live? So it’s a tool. It’s a very technical tool. So a lot of people are like, “Well, my IT team, is this something they should be monitoring?” But a lot of what you’re saying is it’s the marketing side, and those are professionals that are, to your point and what you’re doing, they’re looking into this. And that’s probably an area that if they haven’t thought about it related to your business specifically, it’s at least in the back of their minds because they’re hearing and seeing so much about it.

Cyrille Aragon: Yep, exactly. Exactly. Yeah, and maybe I’m looking at it too one-dimensionally, right? But from all the use cases that I’ve seen, it’s like there’s a lot of marketing ones, and so might as well put it there first, in that team’s hands, and see where that goes.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. I love that. I mean, I think a conversation around this wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t at least talk about some risks of this kind of technology. Have you thought about that at all? And what-

Cyrille Aragon: Oh yeah.

Rob Stott: What kind of things come to your mind when you hear about this and its capabilities?

Cyrille Aragon: Yeah. I think the first thing that comes to mind is the risk of plagiarism, right? Even I don’t know how the backend of this thing works, and I think most people wouldn’t, but they’ve got to scrape this information somehow, or at the very least, this AI model is learning from everybody’s information that’s already out there. So if I ask it to write a blog about Phish, right? I’m sure everybody else’s Phish articles are being scraped and molded and doing something, and maybe it might spit out something that’s very similar to somebody else’s thing, right?

So plagiarism is one. And then, two, the incorrect information. Even ChatGPT itself says, “Hey, the accuracy is at this level. Always check. We’re not liable,” things like that. And there are stories out there that people have used this tool for wrong. Like right Now we’re talking about it from a business standpoint, but people have tried to use it to help them with hacking things and all this other stuff. And so there’s that risk. Yeah, it’s just a totally new frontier for everybody, and I don’t think anybody’s an expert. And it’s like, yeah, so many-

Rob Stott: You think of the ways it has been used for wrong, and one thing that … Not that this is … It doesn’t rise to the level of … Well, maybe it does for the artists involved, but didn’t Drake and someone else just sue AI tool because a song was created with them and The Weeknd, Drake and The Weeknd, or something like that?

Cyrille Aragon: Yes, yes. So that was all over TikTok, and I think that’s where it originated. But yeah, I guess somebody made an AI … They took a voice sample and used that to make an entire song, and it ended up blowing up and getting more views than some of their other songs, and they’re like, “Hey-“

Rob Stott: Unbelievable. Meanwhile, I think another artist, I forget who it was, but another artist realized that, and they’re like, “Hey, if you do that, if someone does this and uses my voice and it blows up, I’ll split royalties with you.” Something like that. So-

Cyrille Aragon: Right, exactly. Yeah.

Rob Stott: So getting ahead, that’s how artists are having to think now because of these souls. Man, it’s crazy. It’s really unbelievable.

Cyrille Aragon: Right, and God forbid that the AI does better than you, right? That’s possible.

Rob Stott: Oh man, we’re just going to have a hologram up on stage. Well, which isn’t unreal because you think of the Michael Jackson hologram from years ago, and just having people use those voices … We could have new Michael Jackson songs before we know it-

Cyrille Aragon: Right. Exactly.

Rob Stott: … because of voice samples. It’s unbelievable.

Cyrille Aragon: And they’ve actually done that with the rapper, Juice WRLD.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Cyrille Aragon: So, he passed away a few years back, right? And yeah, now there’s AI songs all over TikTok.

Rob Stott: It’s crazy, man. It’s really crazy. But a tool that we can, I mean, I think talk about forever … Well, one other thing I’ll mention, I think, that is worth mentioning is that these tools that they require that input, the person that knows how to ask for the things that they need, and it can get as simple as, to your example of I need a blog on Phish to we’ve seen, I know teachers are going to hate this, but examples of someone that needs a paper written at 700 words, double-spaced at a C level, you can get very intricate with how you ask. It could be something, you talk about the marketing teams and whether it’s our own or at retail, those input professionals, people that know how to use these tools and are asking … There’s a real explosion in the space of a need for those types of people that I’m sure you’ve seen, too.

Cyrille Aragon: Oh yeah, for sure. And that’s been the argument from the AI folks is like, “Yes, nobody likes to talk about it, but this is probably going to replace some jobs in the future. But at the same token, new ones will come in the form of prompt writing engineers or whatever you want to call it, and things of that nature.” So yes, definitely knowing how to form those prompts, I learned early on in my team too, will just help ChatGPT give you that good output, right?

Rob Stott: Right. Yeah, no, it’s awesome. Really unique stuff and ever-changing for sure. So we’ll be excited to continue to follow not only the tool itself, but how you guys are using it and where it can fit into our retailer strategies as they look to implement these things. Awesome. I knew it was going to be fun talking about this, man. I don’t know if you could tell that I got fired up during it.

Cyrille Aragon: No, for sure.

Rob Stott: It’s a cool conversation and I know you’re living in this every day, so appreciate you taking the time to chat with us about it. But Cyrille, man, I think we’ll have to do this again eventually, a followup.

Cyrille Aragon: Oh yeah.

Rob Stott: Because I think we just hit the tip of the iceberg here with what is possible in this space.

Cyrille Aragon: For sure. Yeah, let us tinker around here on the digital side of things and let’s see in a few months where we’re at.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome, man. And if you didn’t get the word already, be sure to sit in on all of his NLAs in Nashville. See if you can figure out which one was written by ChatGPT. It’ll be a lot of fun, man.

Cyrille Aragon: Awesome, awesome. Thank you so much.

Rob Stott: You bet.

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