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The Future Of Assisted E-Commerce

newsJanuary 14, 2021 By Eric Kamangu

E-commerce has long been derided for giving an inferior consumer experience to retail locations. Compared to the robust experience of visiting your favourite shop where you are greeted, remembered, and assisted to find the perfect fit, e-commerce felt as if you were handed a product catalogue and wished good luck. This is changing. The one-way communications of banner ads and product pages are being progressively enhanced by mediums designed for conversations. Voice technology is gaining considerable momentum. Text messaging has become sophisticated. Businesses and buyers can now easily connect and transact through various messaging apps. 

As 61% of marketers believe building a highly convenient experience for the consumer is the most powerful lever to generate business growth (iProspect 2020 Global Client Survey), assisted commerce is an efficient way for brands and retailers to engage with online shoppers by getting closer to the in-store experience through conversation, listening to the consumers and iterating on their needs. We believe it is set to become the new standard of digital commerce across the world, as it already is in many markets across APAC. 

Assistants and voice become viable commerce channels

Until recently, people have communicated with machines mostly on the machine's term, using a mouse and a keyboard. By learning how to communicate in human terms, Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa have introduced millions to the idea of talking with a machine. Phones, homes, cars, all our daily environments are now embedding voice-enabled devices. Interactions have become more fluid as well, due to advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU).

As assistants become ubiquitous and grow smarter, their usefulness and convenience increase, changing how people search for information and interact with brands, including how they shop. Assistants can suggest products, remind you of what you have already purchased and your recent searches, and even take orders. Additionally, brands can build their own apps to provide even more personalised purchase experiences. All of this turns voice, assistants and bots into increasingly more interesting options for commerce. On Singles’ Day 2019, more than a million orders were placed and paid via Alibaba’s Tmall Genie’s voice-shopping feature.

Adoption is not only a matter of improvements in software and hardware. Bots and skills have no audience on their own, while social platforms, livestreaming channels, messaging apps and digital media can command large audiences. Their association is mutually beneficial, bringing assisted commerce to more people and making media more engaging and interactive.

For instance, State Bank of India used chatbots and chattable display banners to answer clients’ more urging questions when lockdown prevented people from visiting their local branches. This interactive campaign generated more than 168 million engagements, and more than 96 million instructional videos were viewed in chat. In the UK, the makeup brand NARS has developed a campaign enabling people listening to Spotify on their smart speaker to simply say “Ask Send Me a Sample for NARS” to receive a complementary lipstick, blush or mascara sample at home. It is a clever way to let consumers test products when stores are closed due to the pandemic.

In the future, we expect to see more voice-powered unboxing experiences, where conversational interaction helps educate consumers about the product they have just received. This personalised guidance at a critical moment of the customer journey – the first in-hand impression – could have a major influence in lowering returns and negative reviews caused by a lack of understanding. Additionally, we anticipate an increase of content strategies repurposing existing material into interactive experiences combining voice, chat and visuals to capture consumers’ attention.

Remote interactions, real people

Although virtual assistants and bots have come a long way since their beginnings, not all users are comfortable with the idea of interacting with machines. Today, technology can also help brands put human interactions at the forefront of their experience when physical presence is not possible.

For instance, platforms such as Salesfloor facilitate how online shoppers on the brand’s website receive assistance by enabling them to interact in real time with associates from their local stores. Associates and customers can then communicate through the most convenient channel for them (e.g., chat, video, text message), and associates can even livestream from the store.

Many brands are seizing this one-on-one virtual interaction opportunity to get closer with their consumers. This is especially prevalent in the beauty and fashion industries, where virtual consultations are booming. For instance, in Canada, consumers can book 20-minute Zoom consultations with Caudalie Beauty Experts from across the country to discuss their beauty routines and receive skincare advice. In the Netherlands, the footwear chain Omoda offers people styling sessions with a local personal shopper through WhatsApp or Facetime. Large platforms are also betting big on on-on-one interactions. Amazon launched Explore, an interactive livestreaming service where people can book one-on-one virtual local shopping sessions with hosts from all over the world.

As purchase experience and customer service are among the main sources of dissatisfaction among customers according to marketers (iProspect 2020 Global Client Survey), assisted commerce solutions can help reduce consumers’ frustrations and facilitate transactions. It can also help brands reinvent their retail model, offering new perspectives to store associates affected by a decline in their brick-and-mortar locations footfall.

Key considerations

As we have seen, assisted commerce provides three main benefits to brands:

  • Be always there. Chats and bots act as an extension of the sales team, enabling 24/7 customer service, and providing support on the go without interrupting the shopping experience.
  • Facilitate decision making. Associates and bots can push images, seasonal offers, and various types of content through chats to influence the shoppers by helping them make the right choices and reach the right pages.
  • Create closeness. One-one-one conversations bring the attention and expertise of an in-store associate to the digital experience in a way a website could not match on its own. They enable a more informal and personal tone and offer more options to users who are not ready to buy.

Additionally, assisted commerce could play an increasing role in the future, in light of the sunsetting of third-party cookies. As chats can be linked across every platform, they could enable brands to pick up the conversation with consumers wherever they left off instead of relying on techniques such as retargeting.

Marketers aiming to enter the assisted commerce space need to keep in mind the following considerations. First, they should have a clear picture of the value they can generate for consumers, as focusing mostly on the backend efficiencies may result in a cumbersome user experience. Second, they should build privacy-focused experiences to build and maintain trust. This is particularly important as people are still figuring out how to use these new ways of interacting with brands. Finally, they need to assess the balance of human vs. automated interactions that make the most sense for their clients and their brands. 

This article is excerpted from the report Future Focus 2021: Brands Accelerated.

Download it now for key insights on how brands can make the most of brand and performance to accelerate their growth.