The retail sector has evolved dramatically in the last decade. This has been largely driven by continuously improving mobile device hardware and the connectivity on which they rely. It means that more often than not, we reach for a mobile device to indulge our shopping needs, whether that be through a browser, or more commonly with our favorite brands, through their dedicated app.
These apps have been a significant development for the retailers as much as for consumers. By captivating consumers to spend more time in the app, huge amounts can be learned about the way consumers shop and react to promotions or even images. These apps have also allowed retailers to integrate a rich feature set that simply would not be possible on a browser, and to take advantage of technologies such as the camera or GPS services present in the hardware.
The Agents Of Retail
Retail also has developed through other technologies, like the use of chatbots and messaging apps to enable consumers to ask questions or even make purchases through a conversation, rather than navigating a web site and filling a basket with mouse clicks. On the surface, this “conversational commerce” may seem straightforward, but a significant amount of technology is involved in making it a reality, from artificial intelligence and machine learning to advanced analytics and natural language processing. In many cases, consumers do not realize that they are speaking to “a machine” rather than a sales or customer service representative.
These “intelligent agents” are the underlying digital software platforms that make it possible for consumers to engage in conversational commerce.
The Agents Can Do So Much More
While intelligent agents have already proven their worth, it is important to note that the digital endpoints that said agents use to interact with consumers are just as important to plan for as developing the agents themselves. Presently, voice-driven intelligent agents are presented to consumers through smartphones and smart speakers, but as this technology continues to rapidly mature, retailers should consider additional digital endpoints that a voice-driven intelligent agent could be embedded into to interact with consumers.
Digitally-driven in-store retail experiences are currently led through gesture-driven interfaces based on touch interactions — this is even true of some conversational commerce interactions, such as those in messaging services. However, Amazon, Google and Apple devices do demonstrate a compelling approach to the hardware form needed to make conversational digital interactions low-friction in use. Their use of voice, with a combination of multiple directional microphones and an ability to ensure that only the closest device responds to a request, rather than all in earshot, really show how usable this technology can be.
Low Friction – High Value
In a retail context the ability to integrate this smart speaker-style capability into smart changing rooms, kiosks, digital signage/displays, augmented and virtual reality experiences, self-service POS and mobile POS provides enticing scenarios to make vocal interactions with consumers even more natural and seamless than current gesture-driven interfaces. Natural language vocal interactions could provide the lowest friction technology-led engagement between consumers and retailers as it matures.
Currently, sales assistants are still the main source of contact that consumers have in-store when needing help. However, as this technology evolves it has the potential to play a stronger role in supporting consumers in-store by being able to conversationally support questions, akin to how sales assistants currently do.
Providing conversational commerce capabilities to consumers through chatbots and/or voice driven experiences that are context- and situation-aware, based on the consumer’s location and requests, provides additional assistance to consumers without requiring increased staffing costs during, and in-between, peak retail periods.
Getting The Mix Right
The introduction of intelligent agents will not and should not replace store sales staff. When we are in-store we like to see and interact with sales assistants — they help us find and compare products and offer advice and even opinions on brands and whether a piece of clothing looks good on. Critically, sales staff represent the brand through their image, personality and indeed level of customer care.
There is no doubt that intelligent agents in all their forms have a key role to play in giving customers the frictionless retail experience they desire, even in-store. The challenge to retailers is to find the right combination or applications that keeps them at the forefront of the customer service experience, cementing their loyalty to the brand and bringing new customers through the doors.
Spencer Izard is a researcher and advisor for Leading Edge Forum (LEF). Prior to joining LEF, his most recent roles were as executive strategy advisor for UK&I at ServiceNow, and at Ovum as chief analyst leading their global CxO practice. Prior to Ovum, he led IDC’s European CxO advisory practice and also headed up their European retail group. Izard has previously worked at several international client-side organizations, both directly and indirectly, within CIO strategy and architecture functions developing and delivering IT strategies to bridge business demands and IT capability, creating and managing architecture teams, and establishing IT best practices.