GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post Jason Gregory, senior product manager at online retailer ASOS, discusses the growing popularity of conversational commerce – how consumers are increasingly choosing to shop via voice, and how retailers need to adapt.
As anyone who’s ever read former Googler Alberto Savoia’s book Pretotyping will know, the idea of being able to talk to technology is nothing new.
If we rewind the clock a few decades, IBM was among the first companies to test the idea of speech-to-text when it sat some customers in front of a computer and told them to talk to it. As Savoia recalls, as if by magic, the computer started automatically relaying what the customers were saying onto the screen. What those customers didn’t realise was that in the room next door a typist was listening to their speech and frantically typing along.
While the deception made people think the computer in front of them possessed an extraordinary new ability, the test taught IBM an important lesson too: at that moment in time, the keyboard was still its customers’ preferred form of input. And they proved their hunch, without having to write a single line of code.
Thirty years on and talking to technology is part of many people’s daily lives.
We know that many of our 20-something customers love spending hours each day chatting to their friends on messaging apps like Messenger and WhatsApp. They’ve also been rapid adopters of voice search and voice platforms like Google Assistant. The days of being too shy to chat on Facetime or asking Siri to tell you how old the singer of your favourite band is while waiting for a bus are over. Voice adoption is real and happening fast.
That’s why over the past year ASOS has been experimenting with Conversational UI, or as it’s more commonly known in the retail world, Conversational Commerce: the marriage of messaging or voice interfaces with Natural Language Processing and Understanding (NLP and NLU) capabilities.
We believe that the more customers can browse and navigate in a natural way through voice, the better the shopping experience.
To test this, we’ve just launched Enki, a new way to browse ASOS using your voice on Google Assistant.
Customers hold high expectations for conversational commerce: for most of us, voice is our default mode of communication. To help us meet these expectations, we wanted to bring customers on the journey and learn from them, so they can guide how we develop our product. We intentionally started small by restricting the number of product categories that were available. From here, we can use what we learn about customers and how they interact with voice to develop Enki into a more sophisticated shopping guide over time.
From the initial testing with users, we identified four things to work towards to make voice technology a success:
• Building a robust dictionary and grammar library — in voice, users can be unpredictable. They might request products in ways that we don’t always expect and, in the case of conversational actions, they might say something that we don’t anticipate.
• Personalising the experience — in real life conversations we don’t introduce ourselves again to people we know. The same goes for our Action. Our aim is to become more personalised as we learn about our customers and not repeat questions to which we already know the answers.
• Adjust the behaviour to the device — when designing for multiple devices, there is a spectrum of capabilities to consider. Sometimes it’s voice-only, like a Google Home, or visual and touch like the new Google Home Hub.
• Localisation — we have localised our Action to provide customised content based on the country the user is shopping in.
We’re at the very start of our journey to unlock the true potential of these interfaces — whether that be on Google Assistant, apps like Messenger, where customers can already chat to Enki to discover personalised recommendations, or within our own ASOS experience.
As with any new technology, it’s always difficult to predict how the future will play out, which is why we need to continue testing and validating.
Over time, as we understand more about the intent and context behind what the customer is browsing for, we’ll be able to take this work in new directions. Some will come from opportunities we already know about, others will arise from these important early experiments.
In early October 2018, fintech firm iZettle ran a rehab centre for online shopping addicts to show the impact e-commerce has on the highstreet. But will this change customer habits?
Spoiler alert, the answer (in my opinion) is no.
The plight of shopaholics is something often covered in sitcoms and films where the protagonist, usually a woman, has an uncontrollable spending habit.
These characters will buy things well out of their price range, sifting through their wallet pulling out hundreds of credit cards before finding one that won’t be rejected.
This is, of course, a real world problem. But where once we’d be swiping cards and carrying armfuls of bags down the busy highstreet, all it now takes is a click.
According to fintech firm iZettle one in three Brits has a nasty online shopping habit, addicted to buying digitally from well-known online retailers, and one in 12 make purchases everyday with at least one of the huge online stores.
The problem with this? Other than empty pockets this habit also puts smaller businesses and highstreet stores at risk, as a majority of these compulsive clicks are with well-known larger retailers.
Apparently, or as iZettle says, if people carry on shopping this way over 100,000 small businesses could close in the next ten years.
In an attempt to stop this from happening iZettle tried out a popup service to help addicts of one-click shopping to kick the habit, presumably so they’ll go back to having their credit cards cut in half by a customer services staff at the till rather than receive threatening emails from their bank.
The service, called the Giant Corp Rehab Centre, was run in early October 2018 by trained therapists and featured a variety of interactive sessions including group therapy, “digital distraction class” and workshops with local business owners.
The aim of these was apparently to make people realise how online shopping impacts local business and encourage people to “swap their ‘one-click’ cravings for local love”.
One of the people who ran a workshop on behalf of the rehab centre, Athena Duncan, co-founder of Hackney floristry business Rebel Rebel, said: “We need our high streets and shops so we can experience real things and touch them, taste them and feel them. In ten years’ time when we turn round and there are no high streets left it will be too late. Support your local shops now. Because we’re worth it!”
The only problem is this doesn’t stop the fact consumers are increasingly shopping for convenience, a majority of which happens online.
People who are addicted to online shopping are not the only reason for the highstreet’s downfall, if anything consumer behaviour as a whole has shifted it this direction.
Stores are becoming places for experiences rather than actual purchases – so many customers go into stores to test the look or feel of a product whilst comparing prices for other retailers online.
Others are trying clothes on in changing rooms, taking pictures for social media and then walking straight out of the store without buying them.
What might be more helpful is if larger firms helped local businesses to adapt to consumer habits, rather than the other way around.
The iZettle Giant Corp Rehab Centre was a gimmicky part of a wider campaign from the firm to make people fall back in love with the highstreet and support local retailers, and the brand will also be spreading that message across tube stations, online, in cinemas and on TV later in October 2018.
But the fact of the matter is technology is driving mass change throughout the retail industry, so those failing to change, whether retail behemoths or smaller local shops, are likely to be left behind.
No amount of adverts about highstreet stores closing is going to change the fact that it’s easier to buy online from a large online retailer who is more likely to drop your package of at an elected location and time, plus send you digital reminders about your order and its progress.
Until the highstreet does more to cater to what customers want, it will continue on the same downhill path it has been on for the last 50 years.
During a discussion at Tech by Retail Week in summer of 2018, the co-founders of the unmanned moving store Moby Mart talked about how they believe the “store of the future” will be solar powered, have no staff and will move at customer’s convenience.
The store, which is on wheels and moves from place to place, can be opened with a customer’s phone, who can then enter the shop, take what they want, leave and pay for the goods digitally later.
In villages that have convenience stores, Hannah Lina Mazetti, founder of Moby Mart, claimed they’re not just places to shop, but places to meet.
Her and her co-founder also said in parts of the world where it is becoming too expensive to staff stores, these corner shops are closing down.
“We’re creating something more than just a store, we creating a place for people to meet, have a cup of coffee, talk about their kids,” she said.
“We’re thinking that it could drive out to remote locations and stand there, and in the evening when it needs to refill it just goes off and restocks.”
This increase in experiential shopping is no new thing. With physical stores suffering in the wake of online, a lot of stores are being forced to adopt a more interesting way of attracting customers that may not relate to the traditional shopping experience.
A beta of the Moby Mart store has been running for six months on a university campus in Shanghai, where it has proven to be very successful.
Each store costs around £20,000 to make, and there are plans not only to roll out a second one but to make more in the future.
This beta has made a higher turnover than a corner store of the same size, and the founders claimed some people are using it every day.
While I was listening to the presentation I couldn’t help but think this might be one of the only use cases where this type of store would work.
While Lina Mazetti said these stores could drive out to remote locations to provide them with a corner-store type store, this is one of the places I think it actually won’t work – because it’s in these remote locations that corner stores are not closing down as the Mazetti’s suggest they are.
In a university campus, sure – it stops shops from having to employ staff members 24/7 and the younger tech-savvy generation are used to using their mobile devices as a means of identity and payment.
Regardless of whether or not they’ve properly thought through their use cases, the Moby Mart does have elements about it that are appealing to certain audiences, and a lot of tech has gone into making it.
Tom Mazetti, co-founder and chairman of Moby Mart, explained that the store has three systems in place to make sure everyone gets the best service possible.
First, goods can be scanned through QR codes on customer’s mobile devices because these are “the most convenient” and basically everyone has one.
The mobile stores are also fitted with cameras in the ceiling and shelves so they can track where you are in a store, items you have looked at and whether you picked anything up.
Mazetti said: “Using image analysis they can follow you around and say a customer took a bottle of milk from the shelf.”
The third technology used is RFID, which Mazetti claimed will be built into everything in the future, and also claimed that most stores are already using at least one of these three technologies.
Using these technologies together is something the brand calls “multi-sensory analysis” – customers like the feeling of scanning products, but the cameras are used at the same time to track customers, see what they do, collect data surrounding this and then using the results for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning purposes.
While many in the audience were concerned about thieving customers, Mazetti was quite the opposite, and said rather than handing the trust over to the customer, it is more a case of the customer handing over trust to the brand.
He explained: “The only way you can enter our store is by registering.”
Once a customer registers, Moby Mart can charge them using the card details used, so Mazetti said it would be a “stupid place” for a thief to operate.
As much as I’m not sure some of the use cases presented such as other countries or city centres would be a good place for this concept, it doesn’t seem to matter to Moby Mart – people are moving towards self-checkout, cashless shopping and staffless stores.
Shops like the Amazon Go supermarket, where people walk in and walk out without having to do much else but pick up their goods, are becoming commonplace, and Mazetti said this will be the “only store” type in the future.
Mazetti claimed there is a market for around 2m of Moby Mart stores around China, and it hopes to sell them to other brands in the future.
Much like every other industry, retail is becoming consumed by technology adoption to the point where the two are no long separate sectors.
“Every company is a technology company” is a phrase heard at almost every conference I’ve attended in the last year, and this is especially so in retail as customer-facing companies are being driven by what consumers are demanding.
Guess what? They’re demanding an easy life facilitated by the tech they’re already using every day.
As explained by Max Benson, co-founder of everywoman, this £333bn industry is a mixture of new job options, opportunities and challenges created by tech, the biggest of which is customers.
“Connected customers don’t think of themselves as either online or offline shoppers” she said, at the everywoman in retail awards ceremony in late 2018. “Retailers who understand those customers are the ones who will thrive in the future.”
It’s no mystery that the move to online has disrupted the way retailers operate, having to seamlessly serve customers in a personalised fashion across many channels.
And this isn’t just about omni-channel or online sales – Karen Gill, co-founder of everywoman, mentioned many of the new innovations that are popping up in stores, from magic mirrors, to smart changing rooms, to facial recognition technology and smart customer toilets.
And because of all of these interesting technological ups and downs, 2018 was apparently one of the hardest cohorts to judge.
This year’s winners of the Barclaycard everywoman in retail awards were:
Above & Beyond Award:
Zuzana Starjakova, team manager at Ocado
Customer/User Experience Excellence Award:
Rebecca James, general manager at Argos
Entrepreneur Award – Sponsored by Amazon:
Claudia Lambeth, founder and CEO of Luna Mae
Executive Leader Award:
Tina Mitchell, divisional managing director at Co-op
Innovator Award – sponsored by IBM iX:
Rachel Beattie, co-founder and director at Careaux
Leader of Change Award:
Sue Knowles, marketing / HR director of Costco Wholesale UK
Male Agent of Change Award – sponsored by Specsavers:
Dave Brittain, senior manager / technical advisor, international retail at Amazon
Rising Star Award – Sponsored by Tesco:
China-Jade Illidge-Mundle, floor manager at Gap
These women all represent the role models we need to promote women in industries that are becoming increasingly technology-driven.
There’s a plethora of technology in the retail industry, but in the technology industry there are a profound lack of women.
Deborah Bee group creative and marketing director from Holly Nichols (or rather Harvey Nichols) talked about how in the hundredth year of women having the vote, the brand wanted to “support female empowerment” by changing the brands name, not just on the front of the stores but on its receipts, doors, bags, store guides, and menus.
She explained: “We felt like Harvey had had it too good for too long and it was time to give holly a chance”
The brand now has a crèche on the shop floor, and a number of women were allowed to smash the windows in its flagship store in the name of female empowerment.
“Next time you go shopping,” Bee summarised. “Ask for more change.”