If we look at the way most of us buy products today, it is evident that we are living in the dawn of a new era of commerce. Once upon a time, our choices were limited to the products stocked in local Main Street shops. Catalog Commerce came along and If you wanted to wait 4-6 weeks, Sears, LL Bean or Woolworth could be contacted via USPS or telephone and your long wait began. Now we can buy products from nearly anyone, anytime, from wherever we or the merchant are located.
Digital technology has revolutionized the way commerce operates, but it also presents significant challenges for retailers looking to satisfy increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumers. Today, consumers are accustomed to instant gratification. The advent of messaging apps and social media means that we're rarely forced to wait for a response to a message, even one that's being sent halfway around the world. The likes of Amazon Prime, Walmart, and Seamless have trained consumers to expect rapid delivery, in some cases the same day.
But even as retailers have worked to provide better digital experiences most shoppers make little distinction between the online and offline experiences of the brands they shop with. Consumers already shop in an omnichannel way, even if retailers haven't fully caught up. Here are a few examples:
- Showrooming: Customers go into a store to research a product they later buy online.
- Webrooming: Customers go online to compare products they ultimately buy in-store.
- Click & Collect: Customers buy online and pick up in store.
- Click & Return: Customers buy online and return to a brick and mortar location.
As part of the Omnichannel wave, consumers demanded a breakdown of the barriers that separated the in-store and the online experience, and they've rewarded brands that made shopping easier and less time-consuming.
Conversational Commerce is centered around Augmented Reality and Voice integrated UX.
Augmented Reality Enhances Experiences
The best brands are turning to augmented reality to make their online and offline experiences more engaging and useful for consumers.
One notable example is the recent, September 2017 launch of the IKEA Place app, which uses AR to allow users to see how IKEA products will look and fit in their home. The app allows the user to choose from a catalog of IKEA products and hold their phone up to their home surroundings to see how the selected product will look in that personalized setting. Cosmetic brands are using AR to similar ends, Sephora and L'Oreal allow users to visualize how products will look on their faces.
AR can also be used in-store to enhance the shopping experience. Smart fitting rooms are rolling out globally. The mirrors in these smart fitting rooms use RFID to detect the items the user is trying on and can make recommendations about other pieces the customer may be interested in. They can also allow customers to request different sizes without interacting with a sales associate. The data collected from these interactions create shopper behavior profiles that can be used to improve the in-store experience.
Brands are working hard to design brick and mortar stores that deliver more than just the ability to shop, but the ability to experience a lifestyle. Retailers like Nike, Warby Parker, Samsung, and Anthropologie have developed flagship stores that encourage customers to linger and to experience those intangible traits that help people connect with brands on an emotional level. It's becoming commonplace to walk into a fashion retail store and discover a cafe, a communal table, or even a barbershop
Frictionless Experiences Take Center Stage
The rise of voice assistants and AI driven chatbots signals a move toward conversational commerce. With the Amazon Echo customers can tell Alexa to place an order for them without ever opening a screen. With Google Home, customers can use voice commands to order products from Walmart. Chatbots allow users to search for products and get recommendations without having to browse a website, letting the bot present options and place the order once a product is selected.
Apple was a pioneer of the frictionless checkout, allowing customers to purchase any item from any employee without having to wait in line to pay. This type of in-store checkout is becoming the norm. Now Amazon is leading the charge with its grocery stores where users can simply take what they need, walk out of the store, and be charged automatically for whatever they took.
Both conversational commerce and frictionless in-store checkout experiences are reducing barriers to purchase and making it easier for consumers to shop. The time-strapped consumer will naturally gravitate toward the most convenient options, and companies that offer frictionless experiences are more likely to win in the new age of commerce.
Retail is evolving rapidly and brands that can adapt to the new ways of commerce will be able to thrive in the new landscape. Success requires investment in new technologies and customer convenience. For brick and mortar retailers to continue to attract consumer traffic, immersive and frictionless experiences must become the norm. Brands that can immerse themselves into consumers lives through ambient technologies such as voice (Google Home, Amazon Alexa) will be at the forefront of the next wave of Conversational Commerce.