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.
Inside Bed Bath & Beyond’s Digital Transformation
Digital wasn’t a priority for the retail chain — until COVID forced it to be.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
IoT + Data = Retail Intelligence
In the equation IoT + X = Intelligence, what role can consumer and supply chain data play as the X factor?
Valued at USD $10 billion in 2017, the retail segment of the Internet of Things (IoT) market is expected to grow at a phenomenal 19% compounded annual rate and hit $35 billion in 2024. New ways of collecting data at the source are enabling this growth. IoT-embedded sensors on shelves and in refrigerators; store beacons that can sense and measure foot traffic; RFID tags on clothes and smartphones with Bluetooth technology are all collaborators in this dance to log and analyze data. Artificial intelligence can then analyze the sheer volumes of numbers generated and give retailers intelligence to increase efficiencies and sales.
The promise of IoT is that it can enable retailers to improve backend supply chain operations and the customer service experience. The following examples illustrate use cases of both.
Amazon Go is a test case for effective use of RFID tags and store beacons to bypass the checkout process altogether. Every item on the shelves has an RFID tag and when the customer walks out of the store, the products he or she leaves with are scanned and billed to the corresponding Amazon account. The IoT at play here delivers more than a seamless customer experience: it also gives the retailer live status updates about inventory, intelligence that can be relayed up and down the supply chain.
An eye on perishables
IoT-embedded sensors in refrigerators can predict when the machine might be about to malfunction based on current temperature and humidity profiles. A similar IoT-driven system used in warehouses alerts vendors about potential spoilage and can prevent waste. While the edge use case of IoT in driving alerts in real-time is an important one, retailers can also extract long-term intelligence about inventory, store traffic and more simply by reading the data and looking for the corresponding patterns.
Interactive shopping experience
At a time when the drumbeats about the demise of brick-and-mortar stores are growing louder, IoT is injecting some much needed theatre into the customer service experience. Digital mirrors in fitting rooms read RFID tags on the garments customers bring in, pull up those items on the mirror and suggest complementary accessories. Customers can also push a button to request the outfits in a different size or colour.
If a customer has signed on for notifications from a store, in-store beacons through the customer’s Bluetooth can deliver custom product recommendations through push notifications. Such live interactions increase the value of in-person shopping while also delivering intelligence about shopper behaviour.
While IoT dramatically improves backend efficiencies, the customer-retailer interaction can be much more complicated because of data privacy laws. Customers need to willingly opt in to receive notifications and trade data for the value that retailers deliver.
IoT is already delivering valuable intelligence to retailers. A major grocery store, for example, saved millions by outfitting in-store refrigeration systems with IoT sensors. As the cost-value ratio of IoT devices decreases, expect retailers to leverage the power of IoT even more to deliver crucial intelligence about customer shopping behaviour and increase transparency in the supply chain.
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