As the fashion apparel and retail market responds to fundamental shifts in consumer behavior, companies are turning to technology solutions to give them an edge.
From point of sale and inventory control solutions to store traffic analytics and customer relationship management software, technology is helping retailers better manage their business. But most of the technology focuses on the transactional aspect of the shopping experience.
Here, Sam Vasisht, chief marketing officer at artificial intelligence platform provider MindMeld, discusses with WWD the emerging role of AI and how it can transform from transactional into the conversational as well as other trends in the market.
WWD: What are some of the changes you are seeing in the retail market today?
Sam Vasisht: Retail continues to evolve and change rapidly as it has done since the advent of digital and online. Pure-play digital retailers continue to gain prominence and there has even been a move from online to physical retail as they have established their brands. At the same time, department stores such as Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Nordstrom and Sears have all reported declining [first-quarter] sales. Revenue shift to online sales is steadily increasing. The user is becoming “mobile-first” in their online behavior, but this is not reflected in the [user experience] of current mobile shopping transactions.
But this will change with AI technologies and conversational interfaces. In fact, AI will have a tremendous impact on many aspects of retail, both in store and online.
WWD: What role does AI play, and how can it be better used by brands and retailers?
S.V.: Fundamentally, AI transforms how brands and retailers interact with customers and customers with brands. The relationship goes from transactional to conversational. Every interaction — be it via a web site, app or messaging platform — becomes more intimate and personalized. Retailers and brands gain heightened insights into customers and their behaviors, shopping patterns and sentiment. This allows businesses to better manage the customer relationship, personalize their offers and create memorable brand experiences.
Retailers and brands can use AI to create consistent experiences in an omnichannel environment. Because AI-based experiences are conversational, the quality of interactions and their resultant data can be pushed to other web sites, smartphone apps, messaging services and even in-store kiosks.
AI-based solutions also increase the reach by brands and retailers. Businesses can now reach consumers where they are already spending time, such as inside messaging services like Facebook Messenger, Skype and others.
AI will be increasingly important for supply chain management and inventory control. Moreover, it will provide for compelling in-store experiences, like smart fitting rooms and great out-of-store virtual reality experiences down the road.
The other way to answer your question is that brands and retailers should be aware of their options and understand that investing in AI is akin to investing in any other mission-critical infrastructure such as POS systems, supply chain management, e-commerce platforms and so on.
WWD: How have mobile apps impacted the market?
S.V.: There are certainly exceptions, but for many retailers, mobile apps have not proved as much of a boon to business as anticipated. The rate at which consumers download new apps has slowed. A 2015 study saw that although consumers spend 85 percent of their time on a smartphone inside apps, just five apps overall saw heavy use.
So, how can businesses boost their e-commerce efforts if mobile is growing faster than desktop, yet no one wants to download a new app? It was in response to that question that 2016’s messaging bot craze really took off. Bots are already much better than their earliest iterations. It will be exciting to review the hard numbers a year or so down the road to see just how much bots have aided sales and cut costs.
WWD: How can AI bots reduce what you describe as a “digital overload” with consumers? Especially in the online shopping environment?
S.V.: AI bots replicate the most natural way humans interact and process information — through naturally spoken dialog. This mitigates sensory overload compared to, say, looking at a screen with many options and menus. By sequentially providing information and soliciting input, AI-based conversational interfaces give users a more streamlined experience. In the specific case of retail, people go through an evaluation and decision-making process, generally by starting with broad requirements and then honing in. The process is not linear, though. In other words, users may make a choice, then go back and change it as something downstream in the selection process changes. Dialog-based interfaces really map well to human behavior in these types of interactions. The big benefit for retailers is that, given a more efficient and natural experience, users will stay engaged longer and be inclined to shop more.