Online retailers are in constant battle to win as many shopping dollars from you as possible. And shoppers nowadays are spoilt for choice. You can now buy things, in your pyjamas in the comfort of your own home, pretty much whatever you want from wherever in the world.
So how can we make this easier? Browsing on the Web and clicking a button is all well and good, but how awesome would it be if I could just chat about what I want and voila! Some great choices based on a short conversation would magically appear.
And that’s what retailers and companies want their chatbots to be – a personal shopper, an assistant and a friend.
Chatbots are robots that can talk to you like a human being, that help you search for information.
Apple’s Siri is one of the best working examples of voice-based AI. Chatbots are another digital tool that retailers are beginning to explore to win your hard-earned money and to keep you coming back, again and again.
The question you may have is what is so great about chatbots? Why do we need yet another interface to shop? First there was the Web, then apps and now chatbots?? The answer is convenience. Instead of having to trawl through the web to look for something you want or to download and install an app from a particular store, you can simply chat about it to a human-like bot which should, theoretically, make the experience less of a hassle.
Retail giants such as Sephora and H&M recently launched chatbots on the messaging app Kik, which helps shoppers to browse and buy their products through this new digital channel. News media are jumping on the chatbot wagon, too, with CNN launching its chatbot on Kik, while the Washington Post’s chatbot is available via Facebook Messenger.
First of all, websites and apps take a lot of work to develop. And this means big investments for retailers and companies to set them up right. Chatbots are typically easier to develop and don’t require separate builds for different platforms, such as Android and iOS. And they are really all about the chatting, so they don’t require a great deal of graphics or a separate interface.
Once you’ve built a chatbot, you can plonk it onto any platform, such as Facebook Messenger, Kik or WhatsApp, pretty much immediately. To put it simply, chat apps such as Facebook Messenger are the new browsers and chat bots are the new apps.
For a retailer, a chatbot can be invaluable. Especially if you’re a small-scale retailer that could depend on a chatbot to give the illusion of a personal touch in customer service. For instance, a chatbot could answer all the general questions that your customer has interactively, saving you from the rigmarole of emailing back and forth, or hiring a human customer-service agent.
It all seems to add up in terms of business sense. A Business Insider report says the combined user base of the top four chat apps is larger than the combined user base of the top four social networks. Chat apps also have higher retention and usage rates than most mobile apps, it says. Finally, the majority of their users are young, an extremely important demographic for brands, advertisers and publishers, it adds.
Simply put, it basically means we spend more time chatting on WhatsApp than on the Facebook website. So it is only natural that companies want to get in front of consumers through the chat-apps channel. What good is an ad on Facebook, if a consumer spends most of their time on WhatsApp or Snapchat?
Theoretically, it seems like a no brainer, a massive hit. But bots have been around for a long time. The modern bot is basically a grandchild of a chatterbot program named Eliza (for the heroine of My Fair Lady) developed in 1964 by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum. The Eliza program simulated a conversation between a patient and a psychotherapist by using a person’s responses to shape the computer’s replies.
Things have come a long way since Eliza but have bots developed enough to replace traditional websites and apps? Not really, according to users. Try it out yourself and ask the Sephora bot to recommend some eyeliners. To your frustration, you will find that it does not understand the word eyeliner. So it gives you eyeshadows, liquid lipstick… then a YouTube tutorial on how to put on lipstick… Then you get frustrated and ask again, “No, I need an eyeliner.” And… Disappointingly, it goes, “Sorry, I didn’t get that/ What are you looking for?” over and over and over…
Same goes for the H&M bot. It starts out with “Hey, which of the following best describes you?” And you say “I don’t want to do this.” And it goes… “Ummm… Sorry, choose an option below: “ but the options don’t show up. So you ask for the options again and the same, annoying reply comes at you, repeatedly.
Big companies are making big bets on chatbots. In March this year, Microsoft launched Bot Framework to help developers build bots for their own apps. Facebook already has bots on Messenger (which boasts 1 billion active users worldwide) that help its users send flowers by chatting with 1-800-Flowers’ account or order up a Whopper via the Burger King bot. Facebook also partnered with Uber, through uberPOOL on Messenger, to help people make new connections and share their trip. Other than the big players, we have seen individual chatbot markers and smaller Chatbot firms sprout across the various spectrum and industries. Good examples like Chatobook, a B2B chatbot platform for restaurants, SEVI a personal property agent assistant and tens of thousands of other chatbots on botlist are a strong signal for things to change.
Google recently launched Allo, a smart machine leaning messaging app which also features the Google assistant, “bringing the richness of Google directly into your chats—helping you find information, get things done, and have fun,” it says. It is not just chatbots which are taking a step forward in AI and machine learning, SaaS companies like Time Doctor who process large amount of data are also seriously investigating AI for chat and other purposes.
But as an online shopper, if I need to type what I am looking for, it’s just simply easier to go on the website and look for exactly what I need. Browsing is part of the fun and clicking is way easier than typing out what you’re looking for (and there is no guarantee that the bot will be able to understand you). And let’s face it, computers aren’t going to be like people anytime soon as they have a difficult time processing “natural speech.”
Having said that, they are the future. And we will more than likely a wide variety of bots serving different functions for companies. AI is here to stay, but so are people. Bots will likely develop and be better at being “more human” and we’ll learn how to best make use out of them. In the meantime, maybe online shopping is best done on the Web or via store apps – the “traditional” way.