By Patricia B. Mirasol, Reporter

The use of robotic process automation (RPA), in conjunction with artificial intelligence (AI), will free retailers from rules-based tasks and allow them to focus on strategic and creative ones.

RPA is a form of automation that uses software bots to carry out structured and repetitive tasks. The combination of RPA, AI, and machine learning (ML) working together is often referred to as intelligent automation, said Kevin Redmond, vice president of data, AI & automation at IBM Asia Pacific.

“We can say AI and ML is like our brain, taking in available information and making decisions, while RPA is like our hands, performing actions that need to be done — possibly based on the decisions made by AI and ML,” he explained in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

RPA is an effective way to streamline workflows in supply chain management and tailored promotions, added Natalie Pia H. Azarcon, managing partner at IBM Consulting, IBM Philippines.

“Retailers can author [RPA] bots capable of copying data from supply chain management systems like Oracle into standardized order forms. The bots can even submit orders through online portals, or help process invoices by entering data into accounting systems,” she said in a separate e-mail.

Customer experience can likewise be improved through a bot’s transfer of customer purchase data into a marketing system.

“The data can be used to segment customers for tailored offers and advertisements,” Ms. Azarcon told BusinessWorld. “RPA can also communicate personalized offers to customers through interactive voice response technology… encouraging repeat business.”

Other retail use cases of RPA, which can be deployed in the cloud or on-premise, include fraud detection, sales analytics, and returns processing.

Continuing with his human analogy, Mr. Redmond noted that chatbots are like our ears and mouth. RPA chatbots go beyond the scope of normal chatbots, he said. For instance, instead of sending customers step-by-step instructions on how to change their mailing addresses like the latter is wont to do, the former can go ahead and change the detail itself from the backend.

Mr. Redmond added that the potential for RPA is “limitless,” given that many tasks are candidates for automation. The pandemic — which puts a stress on effective operational management in the face of hybrid work — accelerated its growth.

“RPA is focused largely on cost reduction and is an innovation and survival game plan for companies to stay competitive,” he said. “Manpower cost is one of the top three cost components of organizations, and companies need to optimize their human labor with digital labor to maximize productivity.”

A November 2021 study released by Forrester, a research and advisory company, found that a credit union system organization’s use of RPA resulted in a productivity gain of about $740,000 over three years. The time needed for account creation also fell from two days to 40 minutes, allowing 80% of the 40,000-strong workforce to move on to higher skill tasks.