New technologies have driven lots of advancements in both physical and electronic commerce, yet the vast majority have taken place behind the scenes from the actual customer. Sure, shoppers appreciate being able to buy things with their smartphones and have them delivered to their doorstep the next day. But the innovations in automation and machine learning needn’t be limited to the supply chain – distribution, logistics, and fulfillment.
Amazingly, merchants have been much slower to use technology to serve up information at that point of purchase that can build stronger connections with customers and drive more sales. With a handful of exceptions –the Microsoft/Kroger “retail as a service” system, and the Amazon Go concept stores, for example – we have only scratched the surface of what technology can do to make shopping more convenient and satisfying.
This is a huge missed opportunity. Most people that go into a store (outside of grocery stores and pharmacies) don't actually buy anything.So that big beautiful showroom, those carefully staged and expensive retail aisles, are often wasted on people who are “just browsing.”
Converting opportunities into sales
Technology can help convert those opportunities into sales, in ways that shoppers will actually appreciate. It can’t force people to buy something they don't want, but it can empower them with information that makes them more confident that they are making smart choices.
Start with the reasons why shoppers don’t make purchases. Often, they are unaware of the choices (or overwhelmed by them). They need to know if clothing fits them just right, or whether the laptop on sale has the features they need, or whether those vitamins and supplements are the same ones the doctor recommended.
Technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, could help solve all of those problems at the point of sale, enabling shoppers to walk out of stores having checked off an item from their to-do list, or bought something that makes them feel great.
Most of us research products on the web before we hit the stores – or even when we’re inside one. We also know what clothing brands fit us properly, and the colors that we need to match our wardrobe. But what happens when we get to the aisle with the leather jackets, and they’re out of our size? Do we buy one online without trying it on, or buy one in a different color? Do we buy a similar jacket that costs more?
Getting more from our own information
Without the right information, this is a sales opportunity that could be lost. Given how much we allow computers and cloud systems to learn about us today, shouldn’t we be able to get exactly the right product we want from wherever we shop for it?
For example, a virtual mannequin could show how that jacket will fit on your own body, not the runway-thin figurine standing nearby.Using details like your height and body structure, along with your current wardrobe and color preferences, an app on your phone could show you in that jacket. It could also accessorize, with shirts or pants to go with it, even if it had to find them in other stores.
Automating and customizing the shopping process through AI can get customers back to their real lives faster, armed with goods that make them feel confident and happy. What’s more empowering than knowing you got a killer deal on a jacket that makes you look like a star, or a loveseat that will fit perfectly in your living room, or a powerful tablet computer that does everything you need it to do?
Without the right information, shoppers may worry that they are overpaying, or missing a better opportunity elsewhere. We don’t want to have to return purchases, or risk buying something without seeing it. Removing those obstacles at the point of purchase means more sales and more emotional connections with the brands that meet our needs so thoughtfully.
While a number of tools already exist to help shoppers on their purchase decision journey, many of them were built in isolation, to solve very specific problems. Some are still in the early stages of development. There’s a big unrealized opportunity to connect all of these technologies and get them talking to each other, so that the shopper doesn’t have to do so much work.
Unique and immersive shopping experiences
That includes the online shopping experience as well as in store. For starters, product pages should be automated and customized, tapping consumers’ purchase history and price sensitivity to present information that speaks to them directly. If a shopper typically buys a four-pack of gluten free pancake mix to save money, we should default to that pack and not show them an individual box of traditional mix that costs more per unit. Based on their tasting preferences, AI should suggest the next new flavor that will sure delight their taste buds.
Product pages can also display online reviews that are more relevant to a shopper’s product preferences, for example, reviews on the green color queen size bed sheets the shopper is looking at instead of having them sift through dozens of less helpful entries from all other colors and sizes. Merchants that have a time-sensitive need to move inventory could offer discounts to price-sensitive customers. By giving every online shopper a personalized perspective, we can move them to purchases faster.
Ultimately, we should be offering customers true-to-life, immersive experiences wherever they shop, with a full selection of goods and tools to make the best choices. We can serve a customer who wants a reminder to complete a purchase two months from now, or a notification when cheaper financing is available. They might want vitamins mailed to their home once a month, or a regular delivery of printer ink, or have those options automatically modified if they buy a new type of printer. Every option should be available to them, every time they shop.
Using technology and automation to streamline the supply chain and logistics were important steps in building a robust eCommerce system. Now it’s time to ramp up our focus on the customer, to create a richer shopping experience through automation and AI that can help brands build better, lasting relationships with their customers.