Shoppers have always wanted brands to speak to them, but now they’re actually starting to talk back — via messages and smart speakers.
The artificial intelligence powering such interactions has been developing rapidly and is only just starting to make itself felt in fashion. But experts looking into their crystal balls see AI and the so-called “conversational commerce” it leads to as a logical next step after the decade of consumer change that was ushered in by the iPhone.
“We’ve found that messaging makes communicating with businesses and retailers more direct and personal,” said Anand Chandrasekaran, Facebook head of Messenger partnerships. “Businesses want to reach their customers where they already are. With over 1.2 billion people using Messenger every month, more and more businesses are building unique messaging experiences or simply turning on Messenger via their Facebook page to support their customer service teams.”
Mobile messaging is expected to grow 9.2 percent to 140.6 million users in the U.S. this year and will continue to grow to be an estimated 166.8 million users by 2020, according to research firm eMarketer.
Chandrasekaran pointed to brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, which is using chatbots on Messenger to sell Tommy x Gigi looks, and to the San Francisco start-up Epytom, which is building a business around messaging with a personalized bot-powered styling service.
“This [personalization] allows people to get what they want from a business on their terms and at their pace, and for businesses and retailers to convert this expectation from consumers into results by raising awareness of their product or service, acquiring new customers, enabling transactions or driving loyalty by providing support to customers,” Chandrasekaran said.
On the hardware side of the equation, Amazon is getting an early lead with its Echo smart speaker, which lets consumers place orders by speaking and can play music and perform any number of every day tasks when asked. In April, Amazon added the Echo Look, a voice controlled stand-alone camera that can snap full-length selfies and recommend outfits to users.
Chatbots and voice control are technologies that are still coming into their own, but both efforts make the shopper’s life easier and can be applied on the go (with Silicon Valley having thoroughly learned the lessons of the iPhone).
“Mobile is especially important to close the gap between discovery and checkout,” said Shopify vice president of product Satish Kanwar.
Where shoppers in the past were reliant on their desktops and surfing the internet, that’s evolved into now finding and then buying from phones. How easy — or not — a merchant wants to make it to transact, will define their relationship with the customer in the future.
“More and more customers expect the ability to purchase whatever, whenever and however they want — something we call contextual commerce at Shopify,” Kanwar said. “This concept has been driving innovation for several years now and we’ve seen the industry respond by developing more mobile shopping apps, adding shopping in other popular mobile apps like Facebook and bringing the whole buyer journey into messaging like Messenger.”
And there are other new technologies and approaches in the mix.
Conversion rates for merchants accepting Apple Pay on Shopify have about doubled as a result of the ease with which that system allows for purchases to be made, giving consumers the ability to bypass typing in more than 10 fields to make a secure purchase, Kanwar said.
“We see an emerging opportunity with gaming and Shopify has begun to help developers offer the ability to buy physical goods in apps as opposed to solely digital ones,” he said. “This also helps us set the foundation for [augmented reality and virtual reality], which we’re experimenting with to improve the richness in trust in online shopping. For example, using VR in your home to more closely inspect the shape, size and options of a table you find in an online store.”
All of that could make for another decade of change ahead.