While retailers struggle to make it through the realities of today, the big tech companies are plowing millions into the future.
Although crystal balls are always a little foggy, Amazon, Google and the other tech giants are betting big that artificial intelligence will start to play an outsize role in how consumers shop. Already, consumers are talking to chatbots online, asking all manner of customer service questions.
Amazon has been steadily pushing Alexa, its AI-powered digital assistant, into its Echo and other devices, feeding more input into the system and helping the digital brain grow smarter.
Just how to make money at it? We’ll see, is the answer.
Brian Olsavsky, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Amazon, told analysts on a conference call for first-quarter results: “There are now [more than] 12,000 Alexa skills. So we think that’s all foundational. The monetization, as you might call it…that’s not our primary issue right now. It’s about building great products and delighting customers. We think as engagement — as we pick up engagement with the devices, it helps the engagement with Amazon as a whole.”
Amazon just introduced the Echo Look, a small, stand-alone camera that’s being touted as a tool to help one get dressed. It’s voice controlled, has a background blurring effect, built-in lighting and can features Style Check, a program built to recommend outfits to users, based on current trends and what “looks best.” Style check users both AI and “fashion specialists.”
Although ordering goods through spoken commands could seem like commerce on the fringe, it is something everyone just might have to get used to.
“Conversational commerce is here to stay,” said Sam Cinquegrani, found and chief executive officer of digital marketing company ObjectWave Corp. “The technology is here; we just need to figure out what consumers want and how to enable that technology to make it work for everyone.”
Cinquegrani said voice is the next step in the computing journey that’s already taken the world from desktop to mobile.
“There are going to be ways in which your customer interacts with you as a company, whether it be a retailer or even in a B2B space, where things become much more convenient,” he said. “The ease of which you interact with these touchpoints becomes very natural and that’s where I think things are doing.”
And it’s the artificial intelligence that’s expected to take a lot of friction out of the process.
Search giant Google is transitioning to become what ceo Sundar Pichai describes as an “AI-first company.”
Pichai said Google is always learning from its search business and “when you bring the Assistant in the mix, you start getting even more different types of queries. And queries are more casual, more conversational. And so over time, I think, it starts breaking down the barriers to computing people have, and that’s what makes it very, very exciting.”
And Pichai said there were more ways for the tech firm work in the shopping space and make money doing it.
Local shopping queries on Google increased 45 percent over the past year as the number of retailers that share their by-store inventory with the search giant has doubled.
“If you just look at retail, 90 percent of retail is still off-line,” he said. “So there are many, many secular trends like that, which we look at and we see a huge opportunity to help connect users to the information they are looking for. So structurally, I do think we still have lots of both innovation and growth ahead for the long term.”
More from WWD: