AI is giving Santa a boost this holiday season

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For many Americans, it’s the first holiday season when most of the family may know the term “artificial intelligence” if it comes up during Christmas dinner.

Just don’t expect AI to do the heavy lifting for Santa quite yet.

The rise of generative AI — and the use of ChatGPT — has inspired more retailers and holiday shoppers to experiment with the technology this holiday season. But for now, most of the technology’s influence will come in ways consumers won’t see.

Artificial intelligence is expected to influence $194 billion in global online holiday spending, according to an estimate by Salesforce. The software company, which tracks shopping trends, said AI influenced $51 billion of online sales during Cyber Week, the seven-day period from Tuesday, Nov. 21, through Monday, Nov. 27, better known as Cyber Monday.

Much of that AI influence, however, comes through features that shoppers already know, such as product recommendations based on past purchases and searches by similar shoppers.

Customers will have to wait for more transformative uses of AI in future holiday seasons, said Rob Garf, Salesforce’s vice president and general manager of retail and consumer goods. Yet he said AI will ultimately change the customer experience.

As retail workers across stores, call centers and offices can automate more tasks, they could have more free time — and patience — for customers, Garf said. And, he said, as AI understands natural language better, retailers can personalize websites and apps to create digital assistants that suggest items, answer questions and more.

“We are still in early days,” he said. “Retailers are testing and learning, and it’s only a leading indicator of what to come.”

Even as companies hype AI’s potential and investors bet heavily on its future, its limits and risks have come to the forefront as more businesses adopt it.

Here are three major ways that AI is showing up this peak shopping season — and how it may preview the future:

A time-saving and efficiency tool

If you were surprised to find a popular toy in stock at your local store, you may have artificial intelligence to thank.

This season, AI is helping retailers in some major ways behind the scenes. Think of those mundane but critical tasks like ordering the right inventory, crafting more relevant marketing emails or writing detailed product descriptions for a website.

At Walmart, artificial intelligence has shaped decisions about holiday inventory by predicting demand for various items at different stores. For example, the tech can help the company identify a best-selling toy or sweater in a particular region and make sure more are shipped to nearby stores, said Srini Venkatesan, executive vice president of U.S. omni platforms and technology at Walmart.

Target, similarly, is using AI to forecast demand at different stores and predict out-of-stock items, so employees can replenish a shelf before it’s empty.

Nordstrom began using AI to come up with the…

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