This is how Alexa buys coffee.
She waits for you to describe what you want, she culls through hundreds of thousands of items in a few moments, and then she asks, “OK, Starbucks Kuerig K-Cup variety pack. It’s $35.98. Should I order it?”
And just like that, Alexa may be turning retail on its increasingly virtual head.
She is not alone. The use of virtual assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri have been growing at a rapid pace — the market is expected to reach $12 billion by 2024, largely thanks to the addition of new functions, such as shopping.
Amazon, notably, has added Alexa to its shopping app so users can chat with the virtual assistant through an iPhone or iPad. And in late March, it added Alexa to its Prime Nowtwo-hour delivery service. Apple, in the interim, is working in its own answer to Alexa, a Siri speaker for the home.
Virtual Transformation In Retail
The implications for retail extend beyond technological acuity. In the process of fetching boxes of coffee pods and candy, virtual assistants are transforming the standards of how consumers expect their day-to-day queries to be answered, said Eli Campo, CEO of Nanorep, a company that specializes in bots for e-commerce companies.
The fact that Amazon, the world’s eighth-largest retailer, owns Alexa underscores the sense of urgency to act, he said.
“To keep pace, retailers of all sizes need to be thinking about how they can implement their own virtual assistant technology,” Campo said. “This doesn’t just mean putting a bot on your website, but strategically identifying how this technology can improve customer relations.”
We Have A Bot For That
Easy to say, but how does a retailer determine the best technology for improving the experience among its customer base? Campo offers three tips:
- Be a rover. Virtual assistants should not be limited to a channel or two. Like Alexa’s migration to the iPhone, bots should be transitional and omnipresent to provide instant answers everywhere the customer is, Campo said. “To compete, it’s not enough for retailers to just invest in a virtual assistant on their website. They’ll need to ensure they are allowing customers to engage across every possible touch point — from mobile to email to Facebook,” he said.
This boundless presence would enable retailers to meet the benchmark of convenience and ensure they are at the ready wherever and whenever their customers need them — with virtual effortlessness.
- Talk like a sales associate. In order to hold a shopper’s interest, a retailer needs to engage them, and this usually requires contextual conversations. This is one pitfall of Alexa and other personal assistants — they rely on single-transaction communications. Users can ask just one question at a time, and receive the answer only to that particular question.
Campo argues that virtual assistants can evolve beyond such elementary talk, “enabling consumers to engage in a conversation, speaking the same way they would to an actual person.” By mastering this level of communication through a virtual sales associate, retailers can impress their customers by showcasing they not only have the technology to meet their needs, but can take the experience several steps further.
For example, The North Face uses a digital shopping tool that presents online coat-shoppers with a series of questions, such as “Where and when will you be using this jacket?” The answers are used to generate relevant coat suggestions.
- Mine the data. A whole lot of Amazon’s and Google’s success is based on their ability to collect and analyze scads of shopper data and, in real time, hone their understanding of consumer needs. These insights further enable these merchants to predict, and suggest, customer preferences.
Retailers can do the same thing with virtual-agent technology, Campo believes. “Collecting data on the success of interactions, these businesses can have a consistent understanding of what their customers are looking for and what roadblocks and frustrations they face,” he said.
This knowledge could be parlayed into engagement strategies, allowing retailers to be more agile in their tactics so they are better positioned to retain current customers and win over prospective ones.
As virtual assistants enter more homes and phones, they inch closer to becoming a universal service for consumers. With shopping coexisting in these same channels, consumers will expect their digital assistants to assume these tasks.
Whether buying something as practical as coffee or a car, the demand will unfold like so many newly ordered sweatshirts. Retailers should help guide the way.