Picture yourself entering a department store and, instead of wandering around searching for the correct department or product, you are guided by an expert personal concierge. The concierge is not a person, but rather a humanlike smartphone assistant. Whether you want to know "where are women's shoes located?" or "is this dress available in size six?" this concierge is always at hand to assist you.
Selecting and trying on items is a breeze. Merchandise — whether displayed on mannequins, signage, or via holograms — can be quickly scanned via the smartphone camera, and you can then see all the sizing and color options, as well as similar items and recommended merchandise to pair with it. When you want to try something on, you tap a button and a store associate places it in a fitting room. Once inside, a smart mirror can show you how you would look wearing the outfit in a different color, how similar items might look on you, or how you would look pairing it with a different pair of shoes.
The purchase process is super simple too. When you're ready to buy, you simply scan the item tag and tap the app's purchase option, and everything is placed at the register for pick up. Alternatively, you could choose to have things delivered to your house. This would entail going from an in-store shopping mode to an online one — but better, as you can try things on prior to purchase.
These and other experiences described later are not fanciful dreamings of a distant future. This is what retail shopping is fast becoming, thanks to the mass proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies. From department stores to designer boutiques, numerous large brands are rethinking their retail shopping experiences.
We are entering a paradigm shift for physical retail. Whereas online shopping has consistently evolved with new technologies over the past two decades, in-store retail shopping has changed little. Surfacing technologies for in-store shopping experiences (such as beacons and geo-mapped app features) are interesting concepts, and useful, but they have not radically shaken-up the in-store landscape. Meanwhile, the enhanced insights that online retailers gather on their customers (data on buyer preferences and behavior, which influences opportunities for cross- and upselling, loyalty programs, and retargeting) has caused the growth of online-dominant brands to shoot ahead of their brick-and-mortar peers.
What if physical stores, too, could map a buyer's journey from arrival in the store to departure, all the while creating unparalleled shopping experiences that drive engagement and loyalty? Well, now they can. For the first time, AI can transform the in-store experience for both businesses and shoppers. Long the realm of sci-fi, AI is finally poised to reach everyday consumers in transformational ways. Google, Facebook, Apple and retail-disrupter Amazon have been moving full-steam ahead with AI technologies — but AI is not just the providence of the big tech titans anymore. We are now at a point where it can actually level the playing field, giving retailers with major brick-and-mortar operations the opportunity to get in on the action and the firepower to deliver experiences that are unique and more compelling than can be offered online.
An AI-based app knows which store location a customer enters, the layout of the store, the inventory, and (for frequent shoppers) the person's shopping history and preferences, and uses that information to do some amazing things. For instance, a customer can talk to the app, just as she would to a store assistant. She can text the app, much like sending an SMS to a friend, and the app will respond like a hyper-knowledgeable personal shopping concierge who knows the shopper very well. Hand-in-hand, the app and shopper can carry on a natural dialog about anything relevant to a great shopping experience — availability, size, color, recommended accessories and more.
The more shoppers uses the app, the better the AI gets at catering to their personal needs. For instance, a customer could walk into a store and ask for recommendations to go with things that she purchased a week earlier. Or if a customer says she needs a red party dress, the app would take into account the weather at that time of year, the customer's measurements and style preferences, and more.
For businesses, conversational AI solutions give enormous insight into shoppers' preferences and even how they shop. How many different dresses does a customer try on before making a decision? Which dresses did she actually try? How do customers navigate the store? Which displays work best?
Not only does AI enable stores to gain the kinds of advantages that online shopping provides of user behavior, but it also creates greater synergy between their online and physical store experiences.
Sam Vasisht is CMO at MindMeld, a pioneer in conversational user interface.