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AI: Hype vs. Reality

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TikTok has given us “girl math” and “boy math,” and now I’d like to add “Tech Math” to the mix. Tech Math is when every technology partner tells you that they have contributed (fill in the blank) $XX million in additional sales…and yet, surprisingly, the business isn’t up nearly as much, if at all. 

Despite being the shiny new object d’jour, AI and its halo of promises are not immune to this conundrum. Many retail leaders keep asking if the juice is worth the squeeze, especially around the cost of implementing AI into their businesses, not to mention the time it takes to implement and the potential disruption to team focus.

The pressure on executives to be able to measure, and believe in, the impact of these enablement tools is greater than ever. While AI may be a Board mandate, CEOs know they need to substantiate the ROI with legitimate, quantifiable proof points. In a world of data, data and more data, executives now expect the partners who have promised “actionable insights” to actually deliver on that promise, in time to make it matter. We call the belief in the real business impact ‘CFO Math’ — results CFOs can believe.

A significant byproduct of retail’s ongoing pursuit of digital transformation has been the introduction of a plethora of siloed, one-off niche solutions that offer to solve a single problem. While it’s quite likely that each one of these technologies may be a decent solution for any given function, or even a specific task or process within a function, the fact is that none of them are connected, limiting their overall effectiveness and, quite frankly, introducing even greater operational complexity into an already complicated operation.

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This void of connected insights and systems is expensive, inconsistent and ultimately leads to a broken shopper experience. Most of the retail CEOs I meet are frustrated by the inefficiencies caused by too many partners. Instead of partners that touch, say, 15% of any given business, they want partners that touch a much wider swath — 30 or 40% — of their businesses. And they want the suite of partners with whom they engage to be pre-integrated into each other, not starting the process once they land the deal.

The C-suite can fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities by selecting and integrating AI technology that does more than one or two things, even if those two things are done fairly well. As they demonstrate their commitment to responding to their Board mandates, not to mention their commitment to delivering terrific shopping experiences for their customers, it will be imperative for AI solutions to integrate into multiple functionalities and improve outcomes across the entire retail operation.

Technology that optimizes search (paid and owned), improves demand forecasting and generates relevant content for product pages, emails and social, for example, will create a more holistic customer shopping experience across multiple touch points. The AI impact needs to be far greater than the AI investment. It needs to not only be reliably measured, but also provide real-time actionable feedback, constantly learning, adjusting, and improving the business outcomes that matter.

The balance of 2024 promises to be another year of anxiety and ambiguity which is truly becoming the next New Normal. Ongoing global uncertainty, economic concerns and unpredictable consumer behaviors will necessitate a shift to more expansive, reliable and expert partners. The bar to prove AI’s business impact and operational effectiveness is set higher — not only because of its cost, but because of the seemingly unlimited potential it may have to transform the way we all do business. The tech partner promise needs to live up to the hype with measurable, quantifiable results — in other words, “CFO Math.”


Ahmed Naiem is an ecommerce technology and retail industry veteran with over 20 years’ experience growing leading multinational organizations. He has extensive knowledge of the entire retail ecommerce ecosystem, with high-level expertise in strategy, sales, marketing and client operations on a global scale, having worked closely with the world’s largest retail brands, including Nike, Estee Lauder, Victoria’s Secret, and J.Crew. He currently serves as the President at Lily AI, a retail technology platform specializing in AI solutions for retailers and brands. Previously, Naiem held senior management roles in sales, marketing and product development with publicly traded multinational organizations including EshopWorld (ESW), DHL and Aramex. In addition, he is an accomplished investor and holds numerous board of director seats where he helps technology startups successfully build and scale their business.

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