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Why retailers believe natural language search and generative AI is the future of shopping

Retailers are locked in the final sprint to finish the all-important holiday season, but many are also thinking about how to supercharge tomorrow’s sales by tapping into the power of generative artificial intelligence.

Executives from WalMart, Microsoft, and electronic shelf labeling company Hanshow, explored the possibilities during a special panel on the future of retail at Fortune’s Brainstorm AI conference on Tuesday.

“What if you could shop using natural language?” asked Microsoft general manager for worldwide retail and consumer goods Keith Mercier.

This world where people online shop with highly personalized queries—like “moderately priced coat for Milwaukee winters in black” or “gift for girl learning to read who loves unicorns under $25“—is a reality that the speakers of the panel are already planning for.

AI can serve as the connective tissue between brick-and-mortar retail stores and online shopping experiences, according to Microsoft’s Mercier. “Ecommerce has remained unchanged for the last 20 years: there’s not a lot of service, but there’s a lot of data,” he says. “You go to the physical store, and you have great service because you have a human, but [the stores] are data-starved…With genAI, you’re going to be able to close that gap.”

Walmart, the largest corporation in America by employees, envisions generative AI as an “assistant” for customers. “Prompting is a way of expressing yourself,” said CTO Sravana Karnati, building on Mercier’s comments about natural language shopping.

Still, this world might be hard for older shoppers and regulators to embrace, as these groups are often steeped in their ways and skeptical of big tech companies. That’s fine, thinks Hanshow’s EMEA Vice President Klaus Smets, who believes that young people will be more receptive as they mature and gain more purchasing power. 

“The next generation is much more advanced…they see [AI] as helping information,” says Smets, of electronic shelf labeling company Hanshow. “The next generation has a completely different understanding of what we’re going to do.”

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