With the growing appetite that consumers have today for personalized, bespoke and hi-tech services, it is not surprising that AI-powered chatbots, virtual personal assistants and voice-controlled devices are taking the commerce space by storm. Switch on the television and by the time your favorite program is over you are bound to come across an uber-cool advertisement showing how the latest edition of Amazon Echo or Apple HomePod can make your daily chores a breeze.

Many households, including mine, that have started using these fabulous gizmos like Amazon’s Alexa, love the fun features and commands such as “Alexa, what is the weather today?”, “Play some music” or “Update my shopping list”. Asking a question and getting a prompt answer seems to be a simple technology, but, the applications and implications of these innovations go a lot deeper.

According to a recent Gartner report, it is estimated that by 2020 around 60 percent of organizations could be using artificial intelligence to drive their digital commerce agenda. The report also indicates that at least 30 percent of digital revenue growth can be attributed to AI-based technologies such as chatbots and conversational commerce. Furthermore, about 5 percent of all digital commerce transactions is predicted to come from smart tools like Alexa. 

 

FAD OR GAME-CHANGER?

In the corporate world, there is a lot of buzz around the potential ability of Alexa or Cortana to provide accurate information on sales figures, profit forecasts and detailed reports. Not having to scan voluminous documents and reports for information or chase colleagues for data could take the edge off many critical presentations and pitches, whilst saving precious time and dollars. Having the right information at your fingertips could mean having the world at your feet. Is this the disruption? 

Not quite. These new applications will certainly make information more accessible. But the real disruption unfolding in the market today is the powerful role that technology is playing in completely changing the way we shop, and this has huge implications for the retail industry.  

Imagine a digital assistant on your watch that can track and update your flight status, suggest alternatives, book and rebook your travel, or order and arrange deliveries of your groceries according to your nutritional and lifestyle needs with minimal intervention from you. Won’t that be a lifesaver in our hectic lives?

It may seem like a scene out of a science fiction flick to some but this is far from implausible. We now have the technology to turn this scenario into a vivid reality with a little bit of fine-tuning. For example, the ability to understand various accents, languages, and styles of communication will be critical to the success of this nascent innovation but given the lightning speed that technology today is evolving at, it will soon reach the desired maturity. 

 

THE POWER EQUATION: RETAILERS, BRANDS & CONVERSATIONAL  PLATFORMS

Today, many conversational AI platforms are being rolled out in pursuit of this hot trend but a shakeout is in the works, and only the mighty few will be left standing. It is also unlikely that a particular consumer will invest in multiple platforms. Each consumer will have their preferred platform and these market leaders will majorly influence our day-to-day brand choices.

Brands spend a lot of money on consumer engagement and research to be able to launch the right product at the right time. Even today they, for the most part, lack direct consumer data and are compelled to buy this data from retailers or other syndicated service providers. In the future, they will need to start buying data from these AI-enabled conversational platform players.

Retailers today sit on a lot of consumer data. They can analyze the data to determine price preferences, product affinities and transferable demand to be able to make decisions on price, assortment and product placement. Tomorrow, the data on what drives choices will be resident on these platforms. While retailers will continue to have access to transactional data, the data that drives core actionable insights will be in the hands of these conversational AI platforms.

The platform players will potentially replace the power that retailers hold today – in being the custodians of rich transactional data. The platforms will hold key information on consumer choices, preferences, values and lifestyles. Based on this, they will be the ones who will influence which brand the consumer buys and where they buy it from.

 

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE INDUSTRY PLAYERS?

Market trends may seem to indicate that the power equation will completely shift to the owners of conversational platforms. But, success is not a guarantee for the player that boasts the best technology. It is not that simple. Winning in this competitive space will boil down to one word. TRUST.

Platforms

As platforms try to become central to the buying decision that people make, they will need to earn the trust of the shopper. Several key factors will impact the decisions of consumers and influence their penchant for and loyalty towards these new tools. Important questions for the consumer will be: 

Does the platform really keep my interest in mind?

Retailers today charge a product placement fee in order for brands to secure space on the shelf. In the future, these platforms may also charge a fee for recommending a brand. This could mean treading on a fine and delicate line, and can lead to consumers losing trust in the platform.

Does that platform understand me?

The platform will need to be robust and smart enough to learn from the past and curate the right up-to-date content. In an age where fake news and misleading propaganda plagues the web, platforms will need to find a credible source and methodology to gather data.

Does the platform keep my data safe and secure?

This can easily become the biggest deal-breaker in the adoption of such platforms. Consumers will be giving up information about how they think, what they value and the intimate details of their lives to an automated tool. This data in the wrong hands could spell disaster. Building an impregnable defense against data security breaches is of the utmost importance to gain trust, mass adoption and market share.

Lack of trust in the solutions provided by the platforms will kill adoption. Only those that manage to establish a relationship of trust with consumers will survive. 

Brands

Conversational AI platforms can easily assess products, reviews, performance and track record of available brands and promptly suggest suitable options for the shopper that is cost effective and ticks all the right boxes. This may mean that the best choice is not necessarily the habitual choice of the consumer. This can greatly dilute brand loyalty.

The only way to prevent shoppers from switching to another brand is by strengthening the brand. To achieve enhanced consumer engagement and effectively communicate the brand proposition will require:

  1. A focus on creating rich digital content in line with the brand proposition with easy access and navigation
  2. Designing creative ways of engaging with the consumer by bringing together audio, video and sensory experiences
  3. Ensuring platforms get access to the right content so consumers can make well-informed decisions
  4. Most importantly, brands will need to remain true to their promises and provide consistent engagement across all touch-points

Opting to pay fees to platforms in exchange for being recommended to the shopper may not be the most prudent course of action for brands. Today web sites like Quirky.com are helping people turn ideas into up and running businesses in a heartbeat. All that entrepreneurs now need to get going is an initial capital, a great product which addresses the consumers’ needs, good search engine management and the right marketing strategy. Established brands that do not innovate and get their act together, and fast, will find niche digital players nibbling away into their market share.

This is hence all about understanding what consumers care about and being relevant to them, ensuring the authenticity of the brand to what it stands for through every interaction, and staying ahead of the curve on the brand proposition. If the consumer trusts the brand it is unlikely that they will be inclined to switch loyalties. 

Retailers

If e-commerce was a disruption, conversational AI platforms can herald a crisis for retailers.

The usage of conversational AI can change the way a shopper shops on the retailer’s web site. Instead of a bunch of clicks to find the right cereal, all the shopper needs to do now is say, “Show me all the breakfast options that are high in fiber and low in added sugar and contain no genetically modified ingredients” and voila – the best options will be displayed – completely transforming the way the shopper engages with the site. No typing, no clicks, no browsing – just a set of vocal commands. 

However, experiences created by retailers need to go far beyond conversational AI. Merely providing the cheapest option will not close the deal, retailers will need to focus on creating great bespoke experiences for shoppers across every channel they engage them in.

So when it comes to the experience, retailers need to earn the unwavering trust of the shoppers and in order to do so, they need to get back to the basics of creating great experiences leveraging all technologies at their disposal. 

 

CHANGING TIDES

Conversational commerce as a technology is here and most likely to stay. AI platforms will play an increasingly crucial role in enhancing the quality of our lives and contribute to making key lifestyle decisions. Smart players like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft will do all that it takes to make these platforms mainstream by striking the right chord with consumers and building their trust. It is vital that retailers and brands take notice and start gearing up to combat this disruption. While retailers will need to focus on providing great experiences, brands will need to focus on their authenticity to build the consumer’s trust. 

Those that can earn and sustain the consumers’ trust will gain that all-important edge. There is a definite shift in the tide and retailers and brands will be wise to adjust their sails and course correct.

Kishor Gummaraju

Kishor Gummaraju

Kishor is a managing partner at Infosys Consulting, based out of our Plano, Texas hub. He focuses on driving operational effectiveness in organizations through digital transformation and automation. He is an industry expert in design thinking and innovation and has spoken at a number of client and industry conferences on the subject. He has also published several articles in leading journals.

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