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Inside Quantum Technology’s “Inside Scoop:” Quantum and the Retail Industry

The retail industry offers many places where quantum computing can be applied, from foot traffic to product placement to inventory
By Kenna Hughes-Castleberry posted 10 Feb 2023

The retail industry is a haven for early career workers. From serving food to folding clothes, most young people (and many of us who live in the U.S.) will remember their time spent in this field. I did a couple of stints in retail in my teenage years. In college, I worked at Barnes & Noble and later Harrod’s bookstore when I moved to the UK for my master’s degree. Being a huge reader, I rather enjoyed my experience, helping exhausted parents find the best books for their children, inspiring teenagers to move from screens to written pages, and of course, discussing the latest publications. While my experiences in the retail industry were just one occurrence, they do reflect how many moving parts there are within this industry, suggesting many applications for quantum computing 

Looking at Foot Traffic 

Already some retailers are looking at quantum computing as a potential future advantage, but currently, the technology is still in its early stages. The majority of retailers however have not yet looked into this technology, being generally confused and alienated by the misinformation and technical science of quantum computing. To overcome this confusion, many experts recommend that retailers focus on specific use cases that apply to their business. This can include: “processes such as routing delivery vehicles, choosing promotional strategies, store arrangement, and allocation of shelf space…” explained a 2021 article by Quantum Zeitgeist. Because of its predicted ability to solve optimization problems, quantum computing could help to optimize and simulate many different situations within the retail industry, showing retailers where to improve or change their setups or products. 

One example of this is foot traffic. Quantum computers may be able to help simulate foot traffic within a store, showing where the most popular areas of the store are, helping retailers to modify their space for better foot traffic, and more popular products, or even prevent theft or loss. From my experience at Barnes & Noble, knowing which book sections were where helped me to generalize what types of readers and products would be in each section, allowing me to optimize my interactions with customers and improve their experiences. Similarly, quantum computing can use foot traffic simulations to suggest better customer experiences within the store, as well as product optimization. 

Planning for Product 

Quantum computing can also help with product planning and placement. It can simulate promotional ads to try and optimize reach, as well as suggest the best products for display. Because of its computing ability, this technology can also help calculate the best price points for each product, finding the perfect balance between a customer’s willingness to buy and a company’s profit. Because many companies are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, they have had to transition to both an in-person and digital shopping experience, which can be stressful and constraining. Quantum computing can help smooth this transition and optimize the digital-to-in-person product shifts. As writer Linda Ellett explained in a 2021 KMPG article: “With groceries we might pick up our fresh fruit in-store and grab a coffee at the supermarket café, meanwhile we’ve already got the full weekly shop ordered online and the supermarket has prepared subscription items based on our prior habits.” Because of this new consumer that is both in-person but also digital (and trending more in that direction) retailers will need to step up their game to create both an in-person and digital shopping experience, and be able to account for product changes in both areas. 

The Retail Industry’s “Lease” on Quantum Computing 

In predicting when and how the retail industry will adopt this technology, it’s hard to determine the logistics. However, experts have suggested that retailers may begin by partnering with quantum computing companies in the form of a QaaS (Quantum as a Service) relationship. In this type of relationship, retailers can “lease” time on quantum computers via the cloud, and try to solve difficult problems or create optimizations or simulations of different scenarios. Already companies like Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, D-Wave, and other quantum computing companies are offering this service to others. It just may be a while before the retail industry gets to this stage, but when they do, they will hopefully find significant benefits in leveraging this next-level technology.

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology.

Categories: quantum computing

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