Conversational Commerce Is What Retail Is Talking About Today

Why saying hello to Alexa and Google is changing the shopper journey.

Think back to the best shopping experience you ever had. Chances are it involved a well-informed and upbeat salesperson who engaged with you, asked about your needs and guided you through the purchase. You left knowing you made the right decision.

This kind of conversation-driven sale — high on empathy and knowledge, low on price and haggling — has long been a staple of successful retail loyalty. It focuses on understanding the needs of consumers and delivering an exceptional experience. But in today’s continually upended shopping environment, that conversation between seller and buyer is as likely to take place with an AI-driven bot as it is with a friendly associate.

Welcome to the age of conversational commerce.

Coined by Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag, the term “conversational commerce” refers to the ability of a digital tool to interact with a consumer using natural language. Combining rich interfaces and AI, retail brands are using tools like virtual assistants and chatbots to scale relevant, personal and helpful interactions with their customers. And the timing couldn’t be better for an industry that needs to tip the scale back to providing a great shopping experience.

Today’s digital consumers are more knowledgeable and less patient along their path to purchase than ever before. Consider this: a 2017 survey from Tulip Retail found that 83 percent of shoppers believe they’re more knowledgeable than store associates. Meanwhile, they believe a great experience comes from having associates who are helpful and attentive — those connections not only lead to a more positive view of the retailer but also a willingness to pay more, according to Synchrony Financial’s recent Retail Customer Experience study. Interestingly, that willingness to open the purse strings for a great experience is highest among millennials.

Hello Alexa: Order detergent

Nothing says conversational commerce like the latest generation of digital assistants. Amazon’s Echo (aka Alexa) and Google Home provide levels of personal, one-to-one engagement that are changing the shopping experience and the path to purchase by allowing consumers to get product information or place orders using natural language. Their convenience has led to both a richer e-commerce experience and a richer shopping cart. NPD Group found that Echo owners made 6 percent more purchases on Amazon than they did before they had the device.

83 percent of shoppers believe they’re more knowledgeable than store associates.

While these kinds of smart agents have become trusted intermediaries between retail brands and their customers, they still remain mostly transactional and anonymous. But that’s about to change.

At Adobe Summit, Adobe discussed its plans to build a next-generation voice assistant. It will take core Adobe Experience Cloud technologies and Amazon’s open APIs to create a more intelligent and personalized assistant. For example, a consumer might be able to ask Alexa about the reward status on their shopping loyalty card, and Alexa could respond by recommending a new sweater style and a special shipping promotion based on a variety of data points, not just shopping history, and do so transparently and in a privacy-conscious way.

The newest generation of assistants goes beyond voice. Amazon just introduced Echo Look, with a built-in camera. So you’ll be able not only to order that sweater, but also ask how you look in it.

Chatbot advice

Head over to clothing retailer H&M and the friendly associate starts asking you questions: How would you describe your style? What are you shopping for? Which of these two outfits do you prefer? When you’re all done, you get a personalized style profile and product suggestions that really show off your sense of fashion. But here’s the catch: the associate is actually a chatbot that you’ve accessed via the Kik messaging platform.

H&M is one of many retailers — like The North Face, Sephora, Staples, 800-Flowers — who have embraced messaging apps and chatbots to refine the customer experience. They’re melding physical and digital channels to deliver a personalized experience that helps their customers get what they want.

Two emerging web retailers are taking chatbots and conversational commerce in new directions. Spring, a women’s fashion site, uses its Facebook Messenger app as a personal shopping assistant, asking you a series of questions around things like product category, specific products and price points you’re willing to pay. It then serves you up five items you’re most likely to buy. The entire interaction is AI-driven.

Operator, meanwhile, combines chatbots and humans to provide its customized experience. It lets customers browse a range of categories (apparel, shoes, cosmetics, home goods, etc.). If they need help, customers can message a chatbot, which will then connect them with a human expert in the product category they’re shopping. The goal: combine the convenience of shopping from anywhere with personalized service of a store. Call it “guided commerce.”

Your in-store conversation

Bots aren’t limited to online commerce. When the associate at your local electronics retailer is speaking into her headset to check on inventory, she may actually be speaking to an automated system that gives the availability and not “the guy in the warehouse.”

And if you’re in a Lowe’s home improvement center in the San Francisco Bay Area, that sales associate may be an actual bot.

The LoweBot is a NAVii autonomous retail service robot that can help shoppers navigate the store, find products and assist employees. Need to find where lightbulbs are? LoweBot can point you to the correct aisle. Want to find out if the LED bulbs you need are in stock? An associate can use LoweBot to scan inventory.

According to Lowe’s, the robots add a layer of support that frees up its employees to do what they do best — deliver on project expertise and personalized service. And because it can scan inventory and capture real-time data, LoweBot can also help detect patterns or gaps that will influence business decisions like what products to stock or how they can be displayed.

It may be only a matter of years before more retailers add actual bot interfaces. The bots can handle data and simple recommendations. The employees can give their attention to customers, providing the kind of personalized, intimate experience that can ensure long-term, profitable loyalty.