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Chatbots are revolutionizing retail

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This story originally appeared on Digital Journal.

The rise in chatbot use is just one example of the AI revolution online retailers are facing. A key consideration that retailers face is using the technology to create individualized experiences to retain customers and drive sales.

A recent study by Juniper Networks indicates that retail sales from chatbots will nearly double annually, reaching $112 billion by 2023, which is a lucrative outcome of the automation of customer sales and support processes. Chatbots are just one example of how technology is being used to create intelligent content and perhaps what is becoming the future of e-commerce.

Online retailers are also investing big in artificial intelligence-driven systems, such as smart CMS, that allow them to deliver individualized experiences, an increasingly crucial part of customer retention and driving sales.

Rasmus Skjoldan, chief marketing officer of Magnolia CMS, discusses with Digital Journal how new AI/ML features in modern technology are changing the way retailers create an online customer experience.

Digital Journal: How is artificial intelligence impacting on retail?

Rasmus Skjoldan: Retail is a seasonal industry, and because of that, there can be large peaks and valleys in customer questions and associated ticket volume throughout the year. This is a perfect use case for where digital transformation can have a massive impact, because digital communication channels and automation in the form of chatbots and AI can help alleviate the pain associated with seasonal upticks in volume.

It can be hard to scale live, phone-based support systems for such variations in traffic, and because of this, customers often have to wait on hold to get help — a terrible experience. Messaging, on the other hand, allows conversations to continue without the customer having to wait around for a live agent, and bot-based automation can take on a lot of the heavy lifting for customers with routine requests like checking on a shipping status.

DJ: How important are chatbots becoming for retail, and what advantages are retailers seeking to leverage from chatbots?

Skjoldan: The biggest retailers are able to automate so much more in this era of digital transformation because they can integrate bots with back-end systems, like an existing CRM or shipping provider. These integrations allow them to remove the agent from a lot of conversations. By assigning common inquiries to chatbots, retailers can remove some of the burden from live agents. In terms of staffing around the holidays, bots can handle a lot of the increased volume, so that retailers don’t have to hire as many seasonal agents.

DJ: Generally, how do customers react to chatbots?

Skjoldan: Customers want their issues to be resolved quickly and effortlessly. If a chatbot is able to accomplish that, then most customers are happy. Frustrations arise when chatbots misinterpret the issue at hand. It is important for brands to use chatbots to cater to the customer’s desire for convenience, while also offering the option to speak to a real agent when the chatbot becomes an inconvenience.

DJ: What are the main limitations with chatbots?

Skjoldan: Many chatbot vendors today are relying on a purely conversational bot experience, and it can be very difficult and time consuming to train these AI models. To circumnavigate this issue, organizations can use conversational AI technology to classify the ticket, coupled with decision trees that are deterministic and far more effective in resolving use-case specific issues.

DJ: How can technology help to overcome these limitations?

Skjoldan: If retailers keep their automation and bots decision tree-based, then the retailers are controlling the conversation. This is a simpler form of technology that is easier to manage. If AI determines that the customer inquiry can be handled through an existing bot workflow, then your customer moves through a set of predetermined tasks instead of the customer trying to have a conversation with a bot. If the customer’s question does not match a predetermined workflow, the back-end software will connect them with an agent.

DJ: What will customer service look like five years from now?

Skjoldan: The customer service industry is already seeing massive improvements in the efficiency of CX through automation, and I believe in the next five years, that progress will only be magnified. Brands will automate more than 90% of their customer service and reserve agents for their most complex issues. To get there, the industry will need more data scientists, engineers and analysts to maintain models and create bots that will ensure a great customer experience. Automation will work towards improving efficiency of service — and more significantly increase revenue for brands as a result.

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Retail’s response to a global pandemic? Digital transformation

COVID-19 caused retailers to pivot to digital, and adjust operations like never before. What’s worked?

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As branding expert Denise Lee Yohn wrote for Harvard Business Review this past summer, “even before the [pandemic] and economic crisis, brick-and-mortar retailers had been fighting a fierce battle against Amazon and other e-commerce players.” 

And in a story we’re all familiar with by now (read one example about Bed Bath & Beyond), she wrote, “those challenges have now accelerated at staggering speed.”

Expanding on this point, “a retail organization’s ability to react quickly to changes in consumer behavior has become a key survival skill,” wrote Ryan Talbott (Chief Transformation Officer at Altimetrik) for Total Retail Report in August.

“Regardless of how good their business contingency plans were, once the pandemic hit, many retailers found they were in a difficult spot and simply couldn’t move at the pace their customers needed them to.”

Now, in a special report called The Pandemic Rewrites Retail Experiences, software company VMware has outlined strategies specific companies have used to manage this rapid transition, and what’s worked. 

The transformation of retail

At the top of their list was how priorities were shifted, with a new — or, in many cases renewed — focus on omnichannel ordering and multi-location fulfillment. Brands that found the most success relied on contactless pickup, free shipping, and updated/better-designed apps.

This goes hand-in-hand with their second point: the need to get fast, efficient e-commerce right by the customer

One related topic that wasn’t always at the top of mind, but VMware pointed out, was the issue of the in-store experience — think makeup sample stations at Sephora or personalized shopping services.

“Now, many retailers are trying to stand out for the opposite reason,” the report explains. “They’re making it easier for consumers to avoid shared surfaces and limit interactions with employees or other customers. This shift is particularly imperative for grocery stores.”

One case study VMware shared was about US grocery chain Albertsons. After modernizing applications, the chain hit 450% growth in digital and e-commerce sales and a ten-fold increase in e-commerce traffic with zero downtime.

Another point made in the report is key in the world of retail: the customer experience. “Successful retailers stand out by optimizing online experiences to include immersive and personalized digital capabilities,” the report says.

Behind much of the retail transformation has been technology. What’s going to stick around, post-pandemic? The report identified four trends that’ll remain in place: 

  • Staff-free and cashier-less stores
  • Augmented experiences like ‘try-before-you-buy’
  • Personalization via data 
  • The role of voice recognition in e-commerce

“In a digital ecosystem where new niches are waiting to be monetized, there are many chances for companies focused on digital transformation,” the report concludes, emphasizing that organizations centering data will succeed.   

“And winning brands will deliver experiences that consumers find engaging, accessible and valuable.”

Get the full report from VMware.

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Inside Bed Bath & Beyond’s Digital Transformation

Digital wasn’t a priority for the retail chain — until COVID forced it to be.

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In April, as much of the world’s population retreated to their respective homes — and makeshift kitchen table workspaces — home goods retailer Bed Bath & Beyond had to get a digital strategy fast.

As reported then by The Motley Fool, the biggest question by the end of April — once digital demand and sales had increased — is whether the retailer could keep up the momentum that was thrust upon them by COVID. 

The before

A late-2019 leadership change was prompted by the chain’s lack of digital strategy, explained Motley Fool reporter Jennifer Saibil. New CEO Mark Tritton had his sights set on moving to a better omnichannel strategy. The 2019 holiday season was marred by inventory management problems, non-competitive pricing, and a lackluster use of should-be-standard-by-now features like online purchasing and in-store pick-up.

In May, with many locations still closed, the chain expanded fulfillment services, initiated contactless pickup, and expanded in-store pick-up to half of its locations. By the end of the month, they reported an 82% increase in online sales.

As Tritton explains:

“Digital growth was also favorably impacted by the way we pivoted our merchandising and marketing plans and how we engage with our customers, including more frequent updates through our website to stay current and relevant. A key highlight for us was the strong growth we saw in new customer acquisition through our digital channels. Nearly 40% of our online orders were placed by customers who are new to ordering online with us, and over 10% of them were also completely new to Bed Bath & Beyond.”

What’s next?

The chain announced on September 17 that they are expanding their relationship with Google Cloud — which began in 2017 — committing to a five-year agreement in an effort to realign with digital-first priorities to better serve customers. As described in the retailer’s press release, solutions deployed will help “to further personalize the shopping experience for customers, enhance fulfillment capacity, and optimize merchandise planning and demand forecasting.”

Google Cloud technologies they’ll leverage under this expanded partnership include BigQuery, Spanner, Google Compute Engine, and Google Kubernetes Engine, with Deloitte serving as a strategic transformation services partner.

“Retailers are sitting on an incredible amount of data today, but this data is often siloed and lacks real-time processing. And high-traffic events like Cyber Monday or the COVID-19 pandemic only put more stress on systems,” explains VP of Retail & Consumer at Google Cloud Carrie Tharp. “By migrating to Google Cloud, Bed Bath & Beyond expects to be able to reduce cost and drive business value through real-time analytics across marketing, merchandising, supply chain, and more.”

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What digital transformation looks like coming out of the pandemic

59% of executives surveyed say that COVID has created a motivation to accelerate their DX initiatives.

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COVID-19 has disrupted just about every faction of our world. So where and how does digital transformation (DX) fit into the picture now?

“Recalibrating investment priorities to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19 should continue to be the first priority of any company,” writes EY Canada partner Anthony Rjeily. “But pushing forward with your digital transformation program should still be a priority for the organization.”

Businesses face a wide variety of challenges — shifting customer engagement models online, enhancing digital capabilities of customer service, remote work, an increase cyberattacks and so on, and so forth. Rjeily says long-term successes will come from those driving innovation programs. 

Let’s look at two examples:

When COVID-19 first hit, the retail sector moved online at a near-breakneck speed to drive commerce online. It makes sense that it was easier for businesses with already-existing, scalable digital infrastructure to pivot to the pandemic realities. But as Ryan Talbott writes, this is the new norm for retailers. “A retail organization’s ability to react quickly to changes in consumer behavior has become a key survival skill. Regardless of how good their business contingency plans were, once the pandemic hit, many retailers found they were in a difficult spot and simply couldn’t move at the pace their customers needed them to.”

Within architecture, engineering, and construction industries, COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation plans but many companies still have a long road ahead. Industry experts predicted that 2020 would be a watershed moment for DX integration in these industries and this did, in fact, come to fruition. But going forward, James Dean, CEO of Sensat, says companies in these industries will need to “create a more holistic approach to the entire asset lifecycle, ensuring technology takes prime position in their approach, supporting revenue generation and ensuring continued business success,”

A focus on emerging technologies

According to a new report from KPMG International and HFS Research, 59% technology executives surveyed say that COVID-19 has created an impetus to accelerate digital transformation initiatives. The report, titled ‘Enterprise Reboot,’ found executives have shifted their focus to must-have technologies and more than half (56%) say cloud migration has become an absolute necessity due to COVID-19.

(Source: KPMG/HFS Research)

At the same time, COVID is also a caveat. Approximately four in 10 say they will halt investment in emerging technology altogether as a result of the pandemic. 

“This crisis isn’t affecting all industries equally, but for many of the industries facing crisis, managing the transition to a digital business model is imperative,” explains Cliff Justice, KPMG global lead for Intelligent Automation and US lead for Digital Capabilities. “However, doing so is made more complicated in a time where investments are critical, but cash must be preserved.”

(Source: KPMG/HFS Research)

 

Investment for business survival

“Emerging technologies and new ways of working can play a significant role in the transformation to a more digital economy,” said Justice. “These technologies are helping companies maintain customer and stakeholder trust, keep remote workforces connected, ensure their business is resilient and prepared for disruptions, and build a strong foundation for future product and service innovation.”

Ultimately, the pandemic has placed straight-up business survival as the primary objective for most emerging technology investments. 

“Now more than ever, companies need to make smart investments in emerging technologies if they are to prevail in the medium- to long-term,” said Justice. “Companies who don’t, risk threatening their own survival.”

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