Artificial intelligence in ecommerce is fast moving beyond current stock recommendations, with a growing number of use cases driven by conversational shopping chatbots and tools that provide a better view of, and relationship, with the customer.
If the growth in online shopping wasn’t clear enough, the results after the COVID crisis will demonstrate just how much people rely on it, and are now hooked on fast delivery of far more than just shoes, clothes and tech gadgets. During the crisis, people were ordering strong flour, toilet roll and cleaning products, protective masks and sanitizer gel from any source they could.
Over the weeks and months of lockdown, consumers have become firm fans of boutique businesses delivering meats, vegetables, produce and little treats, along with life’s new essentials like BBQ gas canisters, educational materials for school, or pet food and bedding, with ecommerce chatbots helping drive sales and engaging customers.
While most media reports focus on Amazon, and why not when it saw sales rocket, “with website traffic surging to 2.54 billion visitors in March alone, a 65% jump.” there were plenty of shoppers to go around. For smaller retail businesses, these proved a lifeline in sales as physical stores shut down and a stream of new customers needed managing.
While much of this frantic activity was done on traditional ecommerce platforms, inflexibility and poor personalisation efforts highlight the need for businesses to keep with the times and adopt technologies to better manage sales and the customer relationship. While, out on the road, more flexible delivery services are needed as brands hired thousands of delivery drivers to cope with demand, as delivery queues built for everything from fast-food meals to bedding and fruit trees to homes around the world.
The move to smarter shopping
Online ordering is an established market and for consumers a common experience. But customer management through virtual shopping assistants and shopping chatbot features will help businesses build a relationship that better meets the need of the always-shopping or semi-casual shopper.
An infallible memory, instant communication and one-touch checkout all within a bot are how people will be expecting to shop very soon. However often they shop, consumers are hot to appreciate a positive online shopping convenience, and something that goes beyond what most stores offer.
To improve customer service AI services and bots can combine to alert shoppers to upcoming events or weather spells when they might want to buy a specific item or selection of products. Bots can help remind people who complained about the expensive cost of sun cream in the summer to buy it earlier in the year. Or whatever the hot items are for coming seasons’ fashions, all helping to deliver a friendlier more practical shopping experience than “you brought a toilet seat, how about another toilet seat?”
Facebook Messenger is often the tool of choice for retailers and developers are already building smarter bots than those that deliver some basic information through a script. Facebook’s main channel can be used to tell product and customer stories, linking to Messenger for those who want to know more.
The Messenger chat can link to the store for immediate ordering, upselling accessories and to provide delivery alerts and notifications rather than breaking the conversation across SMS or email. Internet shopping agents can also drop messages when a sale is starting up, or when a coupon is about to expire to keep consumers in the loop.
Bots can also take over the personal shopping role, using AI to examine a home layout or wardrobe and recommend a new look or products that will augment them, across either one brand or multiple stores to add real flexibility.
For the actual delivery process, the inefficiency of vans or trucks following a regular route will seem increasingly archaic as businesses that sell smaller items can deliver them by wheeled or flying drone for far faster delivery. People have already got fed up waiting for a week for delivery and soon one-day will be replaced by one-to-two hour delivery, and the size will go up as the capacity and efficiency of drones grows (and the laws change to allow them greater access to the skies above our homes.)
Behind the store, Retail is changing
The online retailers are already hyper-focused on analytics and digital services. An ecommerce chatbot will be just an extension of this, providing more data for the business and finally allowing people to highlight what they like or don’t want to see again with a definite result. If a shopper says they “hate red” the bot can remember that and remove red items from any future online shopping experience.
Add up all the colour preferences and a retailer can change its colour preference orders with the supply chain and adjust them as tastes change. Previously they could only go with colours, patterns or shades people acquired, now they can positively identify what doesn’t sell and ask shoppers what they don’t like as part of the conversation to improve their offering.
Link your bot to in-store AI using camera technology and it can help customers who do set foot in stores. The bot can help them find what shoppers can’t locate, help with self-checkout, provide in-store live discounts to keep them shopping, and greater analytic insights to help the business.
Beyond its home borders, bots also provide language processing to talk to a wider audience and help businesses expand into new territory. They can also help integrate Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency trades to avoid currency transfers and make customer support easier, wherever they are.
Using AI, the bots can also improve what is surfaced in searches within the bot. If someone asks for “an accessory in violet” all kinds of responses could appear using traditional algorithms, but an AI can identify the tone and context of a conversation and pull up meaningful results for the shopper.
AI can also boost customer service, providing reminders at a time the AI knows the customer is more receptive. AI bots can handle traditional customer service, including returns and reorders, while smartly looking out for further opportunities. If someone is having trouble with product X, then why not try Product Y that is rated easier for use? They can also help remind people that there is something left in a cart or checkout, with shopping cart bots even auto-populating as people add things to shopping lists via a voice-activated shopping list using Siri, Alexa or other virtual assistants.
Building your bot for satisfied customers
Major brands or braver retailers might want to develop their own full-spectrum retail assistant to deliver all these features, but most will settle for a smart chatbot that can link to other services to provide a consistent voice and tone.
Whatever the technology behind the effort, Plan the project around your business goals and ambitions. Perform strong testing before hand with real customers, and launch in stages where possible to allow for flexible development.
Ensure your team(s) can measure success and investigate failures at any point, and that bots are updated regularly, with that side of the plan covering seasonal events and with text prepared for emergencies like COVID. Ensure the bots use simple, clear language and that any personality in the bots is suitable to the market.
Bots don’t have to be limited to text, with many using guided response buttons, video and imagery to achieve a greater impact. And remember that there always needs to be a way to get in touch with a person. Bots can also tie in with some of the features or fashion or beauty retailers providing images from digital mirrors to show the customer in the latest summer ware or make-up ranges.
Ensure the plan has room for evolution, both of the bots’ features, and the addition of further ecommerce technology. Be it virtual or augmented reality shopping, digital shopping on large screens in-store and so on. Expect bots soon to sell to children (with parental guidance) and Santa bots to be a popular feature this holiday season.
In the recovery from COVID, bots have shown their use in many industries and business, and highlighted their value to retailers. But those looking to launch bots need to be thinking about the future and not just launching a cookie-cutter bot. Make bold plans for your bots and they will wow customers, deliver sales and boost loyalty and engagement in the years to come.
As online shopping booms, you won’t be able to talk to all of your customers personally, but a smart bot can pick up much of the slack and a bot that can have a lifelong conversation with the customer across every aspect of shopping, delivery, returns and reordering will do much of the heavy lifting for any nimble retailer willing to make the investment.
Chris Knight writes about where technology will take us next, from the power of neural networks, artificial intelligence and chatbots, to the endless worlds promised by augmented and virtual reality. From the latest in gadgets and hardware to how digital businesses can use technology to grow, Chris makes the future clear and understandable to all.