TV, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, memes, adverts, social posts and reviews – consumers now constantly devour content of one kind or another.
Before the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) it was tough for retailers to bust through this wall of noise and achieve effective personalisation.
Now more than four million Brits have purchased smart devices for their homes and it’s likely that many don’t even realise they are conversing with an AI application to order goods and services or change radio channel. In any case, consumers may not be as resistant to AI as businesses think; 26% of consumers said they would like to see more retailers implement AI tools in shopping apps.
The willingness to engage with AI is reflected in the growth of bots. Between April 2016, when Facebook launched a version of its Messenger app and the following June, 11,000 bots were created by businesses seeking to exploit the full potential of this new platform. These bots enable users to perform a variety of tasks using voice commands with a degree of interaction, from finding the cheapest flights to ordering a pizza.
Now, many of the biggest brands have their own chatbots on a variety of instant messaging apps. H&M, for example, has a chatbot on Kik which acts as a personal stylist. Sephora’s Kik chatbot aims to replicate the types of conversations customers have with their friends about products.
Chatbots still have a long way to go, but plenty of retail brands are investing heavily including Shop Direct, which wants its brands to deliver instant interaction to customers. Eventually, retail chatbots will be able to interpret natural language and facilitate a real conversation, rather than one limited by pre-defined options.
Since it is expensive to have real people answering shopper’s queries 24/7, AI is the obvious answer. Whether it’s the perfect shirt for that wedding next Saturday, or a new table for your living room, finding exactly what you want can be difficult.
Let’s say you’re browsing Instagram and see someone wearing the shirt you’ve been searching for. Unhelpfully, they’ve failed to mention where they bought it – and frustratingly, won’t reply to your comments. How can you possibly find that same shirt?
The answer is likely to be in visual search tools that are proving to be more and more vital to young shoppers. They allow customers to search for specific products using a photo – no more awkward keyword filters. Pinterest and eBay have already announced their own visual search tools and the latest retailer to include this function in their app is ASOS. Shoppers simply take a photo of an item of clothing they’ve seen elsewhere and the app instantly finds similar items the user can purchase right now.
This type of AI could have a huge impact on conversions, as shoppers find the types of products they want much faster and easier. What’s impressive about ASOS’s visual search is its speed – shoppers don’t have to wait for the image to be analysed, and it’s surprisingly accurate, too.
Speed is important, especially if you’re in a hurry to buy a pair of shoes but need to check they will be comfortable and true to size. If you want to use customer reviews to find out, tools using machine learning technology will go through thousands of posts to tell you what other consumers have to say about just those features, saving a lot of time and effort.
AI in retail is still in its infancy, but further features are being tested and implemented as brands recognise the potential to add greater personalisation, relieve customer service teams from menial tasks and increase profits. The technology is also crucial for retailers seeking to meet the exacting demands of Generation Z (also known as post-millennials). These consumers have never lived in a world without the internet and want instant service, no matter what time of day or night.
Older shoppers, on the other hand, who prefer to talk to a human being, may be more resistant. Rather than replace real people with robots, retailers must provide both options. For example, Burberry’s chatbot allows a customer service employee to take over the chat if the bot cannot answer the user’s question – an excellent way of providing both options.
It may take some time for both retailers and shoppers to accept that machines are going to take over some of the tasks traditionally completed by humans, but history shows that eventually, we always do. It is already obvious that the competitive advantage will be substantial for retailers who implement the right level of AI and calibrate it accurately to the sensitivities of different demographics.