LONDON — In an ongoing search to find new ways to engage today's digitally savvy consumer, brands and retailers are starting to use WhatsApp to get up close and personal with customers — and generate sales.So far, the use of WhatsApp has been limited to personal shopping departments as part of a wider strategy for retailers to be present in the lives of their top-tier customers through any channel that suits them. But now retailers have spotted a bigger opportunity to take the platform beyond personal shopping.Instead of directing shoppers to their own mobile platforms, fashion houses are now aiming to establish their presence on WhatsApp, a space where customers are already active. The strategy emerged as the amount of sales generated through the social messaging app, which revealed plans to let businesses message users in August 2016, have continued to increase.Net-a-porter sold its first Cartier watch to a VIP client via WhatsApp two minutes after the launch. Now the online retailer is planning to sell luxury goods through the app to its wider customer base and is in the process of building technology that will enable a smooth sales transaction.Matthew Woolsey, Net-a-porter's newly appointed managing director, said that messaging platforms represent the company's "fastest-growing transaction type" and that customers who shop on mobile tend to place higher value and double the amount of orders than shoppers who only use desktop."Mobile is the primary touch point for digital culture. Our relationship with our phone tends to be more important and intimate than any other technology. This is a user who proactively goes to a destination for a shopping experience and her relationship with the brand is deeper and more meaningful than anything we have seen before," added Woolsey."This is how we are seeing the future of the luxury experience developing and to encourage this relationship with commerce, we are launching iMessage and WeChat, as well as WhatsApp. Ultimately, the conversation via platforms such as WhatsApp is instant, faster than e-mail and more personal. It allows shopping on-the-go, which in turn is perfect for our customers who are always on the move and enables us to respond immediately, providing the fastest and most efficient type of service 24/7, anywhere in the world."Establishing a presence on the app also presents the opportunity to tap into new markets. There are currently 1 billion WhatsApp users, with India, which has over 170 million users, being its largest market.Reliance Brands, which retails the likes of Cartier, Burberry, Diesel and Brooks Brothers in India, has also been using the space to engage customers who don't have access to the brands' stores and promote new products. A company representative said that the service is appealing because it is significantly cheaper than traditional advertising and has high conversion rates, with 98 percent of WhatsApp messages being opened and read by users and 80 percent of the conversations between Reliance Brand representatives and customers resulting in transactions.Brands are jumping on the WhatsApp bandwagon, too, in an effort to cut the middle man and speak to customers directly.Agent Provocateur, which has already been using the app to talk to its top-tier clients, opened up the service last December as part of a holiday-themed campaign called "Menage a Trois." Customers and their partners could take part in a racy group chat with an Agent Provocateur agent, who would then ask a series of questions and make product suggestions based on the personality of the shopper."As lingerie is such a personal experience, the stores use WhatsApp to discreetly and personally communicate with a select few clients to keep them up to date with new collections, new arrivals, or events. As a brand we saw the want for personalization and support over the Christmas period and decided to explore this with a worldwide campaign using WhatsApp as the primary platform," said Sarah Shotton, the brand's creative director. "As this approach was already used in-store by our shop girls, we had faith that the service would be of use to clients all around the world especially for those who wish to have more discretion, at a time where many consumers during this peak-trade season are time-poor."Shotton pointed to significant interest from customers, with over 150 participants from 10 different territories who sought gifting recommendations and sizing advice."We used the technology as a customer service tool mainly, but the project showed us that there is a definite appetite for transactions to take place," added Shotton.The company plans to continue using the platform for targeted campaigns at key trading times such as Valentine's Day or Christmas.Carolina Herrera has also been using WhatsApp to keep its customers up to date with new arrivals and establish a closer connection to its international clientele.[caption id="attachment_10750868" align="alignnone" width="640"] Emilie Rubinfeld[/caption]"When we canvas the associate community at Carolina Herrera, WhatsApp is by far the leading platform of choice, for that direct conversation. This is ideal for us, given the ease in which images can be shared on WhatsApp. And we share a lot of images," said Emilie Rubinfeld, president at Carolina Herrera. "Our luxury ready-to-wear clients want to see new collection pieces as soon as they arrive to the store, before they are put on the floor. One client actually requests photos of product still in the shipping packaging. If she receives a message on WhatsApp from her associate with that photo, she feels that honest connection. WhatsApp features are even more fully leveraged by our bridal clients. Our bridal associates often find themselves in group chats with families weighing in on 'Say Yes to the Dress.'"As the popularity of WhatsApp continues to grow, it raises the question as to whether companies will need to implement artificial intelligence technology with branded bots chatting to consumers instead of humans in the future, similar to the Facebook chat bots recently launched by brands such as Sephora, Tommy Hilfiger, L'Oréal and Estée Lauder.Shotton said that she plans to maintain human interaction for future Agent Provocateur WhatsApp campaigns, in order to ensure "a smooth experience.""Mega-brands with tens of thousands of consumers will need higher automation, while higher-end niche brands will be able to afford higher human intervention," said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.Avery Booker, the cofounder and chief executive officer of the predictive global influence monitoring platform Enflux, also believes that person-to-person communication on the app will remain vital."A brand would be better off using one-on-one communication for as long as possible, simply because the human element does remain important for customers, particularly at the higher end of the market," said Booker. "While bots would raise the convenience factor for a brand, they really wouldn't differentiate the brand's efforts on WhatsApp compared to, say, Facebook."Sharmadaen Reid, founder of the feminist beauty salon WAH, has been using the two different means of communication to benefit each other. A firm believer that "retail is personal theater," Reid has always tried to build one-on-one relationships with her customers and started using WhatsApp six months ago to take appointment bookings.[caption id="attachment_10883556" align="alignnone" width="811"] Wah Nails Founder & Ceo Sharmadean Reid[/caption]"Millennials hate picking up the phone, for some reason they don't like talking, but they love a text. We decided to use WhatsApp to take appointment bookings because that's where our customers are," said Reid. She is now using the data collected from all the customer conversations on WhatsApp to develop a booking bot with intelligent messaging platform Bowtie."It will work across SMS and Facebook and at any time a human can intercept, but we are simultaneously giving our customers the ability to book automatically without having to talk to us."Automated bots are more likely to suit beauty brands that have more frequent product drops and lower price points. "Fragrances and cosmetics lend themselves to frequent replenishment, which gives a more natural topic brand and consumers can interact on," said Solca.Using WhatsApp also presents an opportunity to target customers of a wider age range than popular social platforms such as Instagram or Snapchat, where the growing amount of sponsored posts is starting to raise eyebrows among users."WhatsApp, for all intents and purposes, transcends age or demographic, which arguably could make it more attractive to many brands than a platform like Snapchat. Younger consumers are accustomed to group chat-style communication, while those in their late 20s to early 40s are tech-savvy and often tired of the overtly commercial nature and sponsored post saturation of Instagram or Facebook. WhatsApp — while less established as a marketing platform — ticks a number of boxes for sending or receiving brand messaging," said Booker, who also pointed to the attractive low advertising costs for brands on WhatsApp. "Unlike Instagram or Snapchat, where costs for sponsored posts or influencer collaborations are growing with questionable ROI, WhatsApp is comparatively low-hanging fruit."Even though the space is primarily known as a communications platform, Booker believes that it can be used to generate sales, provided brands offer a "compelling call to action" with exclusive products or early access discounts. Developing an online payment system is another factor to consider, mirroring the way Chinese consumers are using WeChat."In China, brands have become very sophisticated at centralizing the user experience from brand discovery to content creation to e-commerce and after-sales service. WeChat offers an ecosystem where users can live their entire online life within the app and its commercial applications are more established than WhatsApp's," said Booker. "It would be more similar if WhatsApp had its own online payment system, allowed users to shop within the app and communicate directly with customer service, then book a cab to a brand event all without leaving the platform."More From WWD:Christian Louboutin on His Roundabout Route to Shoe DesignAlibaba Sees Strong Chinese Consumers and More Digital StoresAlessandro Sartori Working on a New Fabric
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