Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all the rage, transforming everything from student essays to trillion-dollar valuations of companies. But A.S. Watson was surfing the AI wave long before most even knew the surf was up.
Its adoption of early AI coincided with the rise of online retailing. When startups like Amazon began changing the face of online retailing from Silicon Valley, A.S. Watson’s Hong Kong team got excited about the potential presented by the new medium and launched eLab. The eLab initiative became the driver of the O+O platform strategy (Offline plus Online) which is the core of all A.S. Watson’s retail brands. The eLab centres are now replete with crack teams of coders, retail technologists, shopping mavens and more in Hong Kong, London and Milan. The three centres work together and exchange their latest insights and innovations. Globally, eLab has over 250 colleagues that are part of the 600-strong A.S. Watson tech team.
When online retailing met AI, it was driven by algorithmic, big data crunching. Even then, Andrew Ma, Chief Technology Officer of eLab Asia, was thinking about how to use technology to make shopping easier and, more importantly, a thrilling experience for customers. The eLab pioneers engineered metaphorical tags that they attached to products and to people. When their systems learned which product tags went with which people, they could make relevant recommendations. If a customer bought certain products, Watsons could match their tags to other people with similar tags to make recommendations. It sounds simple, but the huge array of tags and combinations demanded massive computing power and innovative programming.
A.S. Watson was surfing the AI wave long before most even knew the surf was up.
Globally, eLab has over 250 colleagues that are part of the 600-strong A.S. Watson tech team.
Increasing bandwidth allows customers to connect their facial scans, performed in-store or anywhere (on their phones), to the massive computing power driving AI advisory. The ColourMe tool on the Watsons mobile app, launched in 2019, allows customers to virtually try on makeup without having to be in the store or to use samples shared with other people. It arrived just in time for the hygiene and social distancing concerns of COVID-19.
Skinfie Lab uses another level of AI: machine learning. Its insights arise from analysing over 16,000 selfie images that give the system the ability to detect a range of facial attributes such as acne or wrinkles, sensitive or dehydrated skin and then recommend skincare products available in Watsons eStore.
Foundation Finder was also built on data from thousands of people. It determines an appropriate foundation colour and recommends it to users. Beyond pattern finding, it replicates the mysterious machinery of the human mind that governs preference, attraction and joy.
But is it good for business? Clearly, yes. Sales conversion rates have increased up to five times among ColourMe users. Even when customers tried new products, they would stick with ColourMe’s recommended colour palette.
Bobby Ho, A.S. Watson Group IT & Digital Transformation Director (Asia), has been working on AI applications in stores. A friendly robotic store assistant, Temi, races up and down the aisles of larger PARKnSHOP supermarkets, speaking directly to customers and taking them to find the products they crave. Temi is only getting smarter through the work of A.S. Watson’s tech teams.
AI is making human staff more effective too. A new tool enables staff to take a photo of a shelf in-store and the AI will pick out anything out of place so staff can correct it. It’s about having the right product in the right place all the time.
With over 9,000 variations of products, no staff member can remember them all – but AI can help.
The same staff have tools to help customers. “Do You Have This?” allows staff (and soon Temi) to scan a product or image presented by a customer to determine if they have it in stock. With over 9,000 variations of products, no staff member can remember them all – but AI can help. The next level is the “Something you may also like” tool which will recommend suitable additions or alternatives for customers to consider.
Using new, ChatGPT-style AI, chatbots can move beyond using keywords to spit out pre-planned answers to providing spot-on, natural language advice for customers.
The eLab and A.S. Watson tech teams are still innovating, living in the joy of developing and applying new technology to make the lives of their colleagues easier, and bringing more delighted customers into the world of A.S. Watson’s 12 brands. They could be forgiven for thinking of the world’s largest international health and retailer group as the “AI Watson Group”!
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The high-pressure crucible of Hong Kong’s shopping environment seems like it would leave little room for learning among retail professionals. But A.S. Watson’s commitment to higher performance creates opportunities for promising staff to elevate their game at its very own Retail Academy.
Tactical donations make a difference to help tackle one, or even several, problems. But a series of strategic donations will bolster the entire biological, bioengineering and biomedical establishment in Hong Kong with world-class platforms and integrative thinking.
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Australian Gas Infrastructure Group is proving itself a public ally by greening the gas supply of Australian homes and taking the first steps to deliver 100% emission-free hydrogen to replace gas.
Watsons’ ninth-generation store design ethos is transforming stores into experiential spaces, making the most of their O+O strategy and aligning Watsons with customers’ green hearts. Delivering human connection and a commitment to environmental stewardship is incorporated into features in stores from Hong Kong to Türkiye.
Designing 21st-century ports requires that operators cater to the demands posed by increasingly enormous container ships. Use of autonomous vehicles and AI cranes and vehicles drives efficiency. The complex dance of goods and containers at a modern port only happens when designers set the stage for success.
Power plant design demands that everyone — from staff and neighbours to dolphins and birds — is kept safe. HK Electric and Canadian Power may be an ocean apart, but both have ingenious design elements and technology that enable them to take on explosive fuels and turn them into a safe stream of electricity, powering people’s lives and entire economies.
The promise of telemedicine is being delivered by A.S. Watson from the UK to Asia. Patients can jump the queue to see doctors in minutes and get home delivery of medicines. The days of reading year-old magazines at the doctor’s clinic are done – online medicine is being delivered NOW!
PharusDx, a CK Life Sciences and CK Hutchison investee, is developing a test that would provide fast, accurate diagnosis of not one but multiple types of cancer – all from a single blood sample. And it is using AI to do it.
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