Written by: Gary Hawkins, founder, and CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology (CART)

From Soup to Homo-Sapien

Life on earth developed over millions of years, rising from the primordial soup. Single-cell organisms gave way to more complex life, which gave way to life rising from the sea to inhabit the land. For nearly two million years, multiple human-like species co-earthexisted, none gaining any lasting advantage. But then, as Yuval Harari, in his history-spanning book Sapiens explains, around 70,000 years ago, a genetic mutation occurred. This mutation triggered a cognitive revolution that enabled homo-sapiens to quickly advance beyond all other species. That cognitive spark changed the world resulting in:


  • Imagination
  • Conceptual thinking
  • Expanded language

This new sapient species now had the ability to rule the world. That first spark of cognitive intelligence, in a relative blink of an eye, raised homo-sapiens to a new plane of existence.

From Sales to Cognitive Retail

For the better part of the past century, retailers have been driven by a near singular instinct: sell more products. The world, cognition word cloudhowever, changed.  Just as early life evolved in response to the surrounding environment, so too did retail. A myriad of traits evolved to help each retail species in the cutthroat battle for survival:

  • Category management
  • Product assortment
  • Pricing optimization
  • Product-based management reporting,

Recently – again, in a relative blink of an eye – a mutation has appeared. Technology has sparked another cognitive revolution, this time creating a new species of retailers elevated to a higher plane of existence: Customer cognitive retailers.

Customer Cognitive Retailers

Customer cognitive retailers use AI and machine learning (fed off of big data) to create extensive shopper profiles. These solutions provide deeper insights and understanding than were ever before possible. In classic Darwinian evolution, this new species of retailer has developed sophisticated new tools as they battle for market supremacy. They have evolved far beyond the club of mass promotion and blunderbuss of printed circulars. Strategic hyper-personalization, including individualized pricing, are the new weapons of choice as customer cognizant retailers maximize share-of-wallet and grow customer lifetime value.

What does this new environment require?

This new data-driven environment demands speed and agility in addition to raw intelligence.  This is especially true when the man on smartphonevalue of data begins to erode the moment it is created. Marketing success requires being contextually relevant. Shoppers are online via their smartphones 24/7, so marketing must be realtime. Customer cognition at the speed of thought.

And there is one more environmental influence impacting the evolution of customer cognitive retail. We are at the inflection point on the exponential growth curve of computer processing power, where ever-faster change becomes increasingly noticeable. It is this faster, cheaper processing power that fuels the expanding use of AI and machine learning – the primary tools of customer cognition.

Noted professor Thomas Davenport co-authored an HBR article a while back titled, “Why Companies That Wait to Adopt AI May Never Catch Up”. The premise that Davenport put forth reflects the new retail environment: AI capabilities are so powerful that early adopters may open up such a performance gap with their slower competitors that the followers may never catch up.

Imagine machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence technology, unleashed on big customer data. The model ferreting out that a certain group of shoppers are at risk of defecting from the retailer next week. Or the model discovering why, of all new shoppers coming into a retailer to shop for the first time, only a small portion of them return again and go on to become regular customers. Or the model understanding at an individual customer level, which products to promote at specific prices to maximize share-of-wallet and lifetime value.

This, and far more, is what customer cognitive retailers are working on as they emerge into a post-pandemic world. A world demanding real-time digital engagement with shoppers seeking the latest information and avoiding germ-laden paper ads. A world where digital success requires contextual relevancy and irrelevant mass promotion is
seen as spam.


Gary Hawkins is an author, speaker, and CEO of CART (the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology). His virtual library can be found at retailmindsteps.com, and he can be reached at ghawkins@retailmindsteps.com