Conversational commerce and the rise of the robot

Retailers have been watching AI, the artificial intelligence for years, and while 2018 may be the year it takes off, many companies struggle to justify the investment without a clear strategy. Earlier this year at, Oak Labs CEO and founder Healey Cypher spoke with Joyce Lee, head of Google Retail Innovation, and Jennifer Tvedt, global director of project management and performance innovation at Nike Inc., about the advancements and potential of chatbots and AI-powered messaging.

Both physical stores and ecommerce retailers can benefit from AI, but it may be harder for physical stores to determine where it’s useful. Cypher suggested bricks-and-mortar retailers visualize the online conversion funnel (drop-offs between landing page, product page, cart and checkout), then apply it in a physical context in both the implicit and explicit technology of the store.

The panel also talked about a “buzzy” phrase in retail right now — conversational commerce. Tvedt described it as the communication channel and platform in which customers and businesses are interacting with each other; personalization is important to maintain customer attention while also providing the right content. “How do we support the consumer in … making sure that content is given to them right at the point that they need it?” she asked.

Conversational commerce also applies to enterprise and operations; Lee emphasized that it’s not just about the transaction, but building a relationship that brings a customer back. She said retailers should consider using robots as the first line of defence in customer service interactions, since responding within hours is linked to better conversion rates and retention rates. She also suggested that robots could help bricks-and-mortar stores take physical inventory faster and more accurately.

While often spoken of as an emerging technology, some retailers stand out for getting in the conversational commerce game early. Tvedt’s favourite example of machine learning is Alibaba’s chatbot, which offers customer support and product recommendations; Lee highlighted Stitch Fix for its algorithm that continuously learns and adapts to customers’ style preferences while combining AI with human intelligence.

Although robots continue to grow more intelligent, the experts on the panel unanimously agreed they won’t replace all human interaction. Instead, automation can be useful for “high-touch, low-value” communication, with humans executing high-value communication. Machine learning isn’t always perfect, but it can help save time and money with simple, repetitive tasks.

When it comes to retailers implementing AI, both Lee and Tvedt advised them to “think big, but start small.” Start with the customer and work backward — what are the issues and friction points?

Learn more about the ways AI can enhance business: Visit the Innovation Lab at NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show to see how cutting-edge technology can make businesses more productive through hands-on product demos. Experience the latest AI at the Emerging Technology Showcase or catch a presentation about How AI’s Building Blocks are Powering Retail’s Growth, Robotics and AI in Retail or Ethics in the Age of Artificial Intelligence at the Innovation Lab Stage.