Chatbots  offer retailers a cheaper, smarter and more efficient way of engaging customers. With an intuitive question-and-answer interface backed by the power of machine learning, the tech can help deliver everything from 24-hour customer service to personalized product recommendations – all without human intervention.
So which retail brands are using chatbots, and how?
Retail brands typically have large catalogues that can be difficult to navigate. Filters and search tools can be a rather clumsy solution. Chatbots come close to replicating the experience of a physical store, where you’d be able to simply tell the shop assistant what you’re looking for and they’d take you there, before ringing up your selections and checking you out.
For customer service, chatbots can be programmed with responses to frequently asked questions, providing front-line support for simple queries and the ability to hand customers on to a real customer service representative.
Retail trend: messaging app integration
Worldwide, Facebook Messenger was the second most-used app overall, although top in Australia, Canada and the US. WeChat, Line and Telegram held significant popularity in China, Japan and Iran respectively.
For retailers, integrating a chatbot into an existing messaging platform makes a lot of sense. It reduces friction for the consumer, which is important because, according to comScore’s 2016 US Mobile App Report , nearly half of smartphone users don’t download any new apps per month. Of the other 51%, only 19% download 4 or more apps per month.
With so many ‘indispensable’ apps now in existence, it’s harder than ever to capture users’ attention in a native app. The same report found that frequency of usage was the main determinant of whether an app was moved to the home screen. For retailers whose apps aren’t likely to be used multiple times per day, piggybacking off the usage of a messaging app makes perfect sense.
From the messaging app perspective, there are big benefits to be had – acting as the gateway to several other services comes with a significant boost to your usage statistics. China’s favored WeChat  is already way ahead of WhatsApp and Facebook messenger in terms of this functionality, with users able to send and receive money, use coupons, scan QR codes and even book taxis and flights from the app.
So which chatbots are out there, and what retailers using them for?
In early 2016, fashion brand H&M launched a chatbot on messenger app Kik, which allowed customers to see, share and purchase products in their catalogue. It starts you off with a few simple questions – men’s or women’s clothing, the item you’re after, style preferences – before recommending some products. Users can click through to a product page or share the result with other Kik contacts.
I found it a little clunky when I used it (it couldn’t handle misspellings, for example), but it was an early proof of concept for the chatbot format.
North Face use a mobile-optimized microsite to host another product recommendation chatbot . Like H&M, it narrows your choices via a series of questions, with a list of products that match your preferences.
Product order/service delivery
Fast-food retailer Taco Bell have developed an integration with messaging platform Slack, allowing you to place an order from within the app. Using a series of commands, you can add and remove ingredients, ask for prices, request to see your cart and ultimately checkout.
Taco Bell demonstrate an additional benefit of chatbots: once they’re set up, they can deliver a consistent brand experience to users every time. As you can see below, chatbots offered Taco Bell an opportunity to showcase their fun, quirky tone of voice.
Now, I know they’re technically not a retailer, but I thought it was worth mentioning everyone’s favorite definitely-not-a-taxi-service Uber. It also has an integration, this time into Facebook Messenger.
This is interesting considering Uber are not fighting for space on people’s phones. In fact, as of November 2015 they had more than 40m active users every month – constituting around 85% of the US ‘ride-hailing’ market. An estimated 21% of US Android phones  have Uber installed in them.
Uber already has a mind-blowing smooth user experience; the only difference with Messenger is the execution. Still, it saves the users from having to exit one app and open another – so it still makes sense.
For example, pizza tycoon Domino’s implemented one  to help customers check the status of their order, answer FAQs and get deals and promotions. Now available for Facebook Messenger too, customers can order and pay for pizza without leaving the app.
Finally, Macy’s StoreHelp  is a simple chatbot designed to help you locate items in your local Macy’s store. Optimized primarily for mobile web, it works well and is easy to use (as it should be, given its limited scope). The page can also suggest products and provide answers to simple questions.
Although not technically a customer service example, I’d also like to give a shout out to Amy Ingram  – a virtual personal assistant which helps schedule meetings via email (Amy Ingram? AI? Get it?). The service is very convincing – most people who interact with her never realize she’s a robot. She even has her own LinkedIn  profile. All you have to do is CC her into an email and she’ll do the rest.
Some organizations have even gone beyond text-based chatbots. Technology startup Soul Machines  have developed a chatbot for the Australian government that looks like a real person . ‘Nadia’, voiced by actress Cate Blanchett, has realistic facial expressions and voice intonation, and can be interacted with via a webcam and microphone.
Although no brands have jumped on this hyper-realistic approach just yet, it could become increasingly appealing to those looking for standout customer service.
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- ^ Chatbots (www.clickz.com)
- ^ messaging apps have now surpassed social networks (uk.businessinsider.com)
- ^ BI Intelligence (uk.businessinsider.com)
- ^ SimilarWeb (www.similarweb.com)
- ^ Statista (www.statista.com)
- ^ comScore’s 2016 US Mobile App Report (www.comscore.com)
- ^ WeChat (www.clickz.com)
- ^ Chatbots Magazine (chatbotsmagazine.com)
- ^ product recommendation chatbot (www.thenorthface.com)
- ^ 21% of US Android phones (expandedramblings.com)
- ^ roll out bot-like features (www.theverge.com)
- ^ implemented one (blog.pizzahut.com)
- ^ VentureBeat (venturebeat.com)
- ^ StoreHelp (m.satis.fi)
- ^ Amy Ingram (x.ai)
- ^ LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com)
- ^ Soul Machines (www.soulmachines.com)
- ^ looks like a real person (www.technologyreview.com)
- ^ uncanny valley (en.wikipedia.org)