One Key to Pandemic Retailing: Artificial Intelligence – Barron’s

Illustration by Elias Stein

Retail is no stranger to artificial intelligence. Nearly a decade ago,


used AI to predict when a woman was pregnant. Today, with Covid-19 fueling online shopping, more data and computing power than ever is available. “An AI system needs data to become smart. And the more data it has, the smarter it gets,” says Gaylene Meyer, vice president of global marketing and communications at


whose products allow retailers to track trillions of items in real time.

That’s key, since inconvenience is the enemy of sales. The pandemic wreaked havoc on supply chains, which, coupled with consumer reluctance to buy nondiscretionary items, reduced data earlier this year. Retailers that could afford AI could adjust, often by tapping nontraditional data. “Mobile is the new mall,” says Cowen analyst Oliver Chen, who notes that machine learning allows brands to build one-on-one relationships with consumers at scale. “It’s how you interact with a retailer online—that’s the secret sauce behind a lot of social media data.” That’s part of the rationale behind


bid for TikTok, which provides data on how younger shoppers engage with brands via social media. “Walmart knows the most valuable customer is in the early stages of household formation,” says Chen, meaning they’re entering prime spending years. The buzzword is personalization. AI directs ad dollars to receptive audiences, customizes offers, or generates dynamic menus based on customer preferences. As Chen says, “It comes back to [retailers] knowing what you want before you know you want it.”
Last Week
A Random Walk Stocks rose and fell, but not a lot, buffeted by the Covid-19 spike, relief talks, campaign noise, and, yes, corporate earnings. Stocks rose after the Google antitrust suit was announced and relief hopes faded, then sagged. Go figure. On the week, the

Dow Jones Industrial Average

fell 0.9%, to 28,335.57; the

S&P 500

index shed 0.5%, to 3465.39; and the

Nasdaq Composite

lost 1.1%, to 11,548.28.
The Third Wave Covid roared again, as some 38 states saw increases in cases and hospitals filled up, particularly across the Midwest. The death toll passed 220,000; Thursday, the day of the final presidential debate, saw a record 77,000 new cases. Meanwhile, reports emerged of tensions within the White House’s coronavirus task force, with President Trump calling infectious disease chief Dr. Anthony Fauci a “disaster” and saying that people were tired of hearing about the virus from the “idiots” in the government. Gilead Sciences won approval for remdesivir as an anti-Covid therapy.
Politics of Relief With the election looming, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set a Tuesday deadline to reach a deal on Covid relief. Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin negotiated a $2 trillion plan, until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned of GOP resistance. Trump then blamed Pelosi, who continued to talk to Mnuchin. Separately, Democrats boycotted a Judiciary Committee vote approving Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Powell on Crypto Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said that the U.S. would proceed cautiously on a digital currency. “We do think it’s more important to get it right than to be first,” he said, warning of threats of cyberattacks, counterfeiting, and fraud and the need to ensure safety and security.
Charging Google After a yearlong probe, the Justice Department accused Alphabet’s Google unit of multiple violations of antitrust law. The government is arguing that Google used a variety of business arrangements to secure a dominant role for online search, particularly on mobile phones, allowing it to leverage advertising. Google called the case “deeply flawed.”
Boris on the Brink U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, facing a December deadline on a Brexit trade deal with the European Union, threatened to go it alone. Talks then resumed, and the U.K. signed a trade deal with Japan.
Annals of Deal Making Opioid producer Purdue Pharma agreed to an $8.3 billion settlement after pleading guilty to three federal criminal charges…Goldman Sachs will pay $2.9 billion for its role in Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, while clawing back $174 million from executives…Ant Group won approval from Hong Kong regulators for an initial public offering. The company, owned by Alibaba Group Holding, will also list in Shanghai. Ant expects to raise some $35 billion, for a market value of $280 billion…ConocoPhillips said it would buy Concho Resources in a $9.7 billion all-stock deal, the biggest oil deal since the pandemic hit…Pioneer Natural Resources will buy Parsley Energy for $4.5 billion…Intel is selling its flash-memory unit to SK Hynix for $9 billion. Write to Teresa Rivas at [email protected]