The virtual shopping assistant

Engaging with the audience or knowing your customer is a top priority for any sales environment and both in-store and online shopping experiences are no exception. Just as advertising is designed to subliminally appeal to the target market, shoppers should feel that they are being guided through the shopping experience with product offering both in store and online. But in the wake of recent restrictions imposed by Coronavirus how can retails look to enhance the shopping experience with content and user interaction? Michelle Winny finds out more.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) recently found that total year-on-year UK’s retail footfall in 2020 dropped by 43.4%. This comes due to Coronavirus-induced national lockdowns that hoped to stem the spread of the virus, which resulted in the forced closure of non-essential retail destinations. Such low levels of footfall confirm the fears of languishing consumer confidence, both as a result of the ongoing pandemic and the consequential economic fallout.

Notably, December’s retail footfall fell by 46.1% in comparison to the year before but was also a 19.3% improvement on November’s footfall, when England went into its second national lockdown. As the third national lockdown went underway, retailers across the UK once again reverted to the government’s strict guidelines in terms of maintaining social distancing in-store and providing hand sanitiser for customers, but few made efforts to revitalise the shopping experience to attract customers amidst the pandemic.

With these statistics in mind, CEO of Ubamarket, Will Broome, focusing on the state of the UK’s retail sector and how retailers must transform their operations to get customers back in-store says: “The statistics have made it very clear that whilst the retail sector has experienced a gradual increase in footfall over the past few weeks, consumer confidence is still extremely low- and this is expected to continue as a result of the third lockdown.

“It’s great to see that retailers are doing a good job of upholding government guidelines and adhering to social distancing and hygiene measures in-store, but this is simply not enough to inspire customers to risk heading back to the high-street or shopping centre.”

Broome believes that in order to entice customers back in-store, retailers must accept that the landscape has completely changed, and hygiene is only one of the concerns: “As a result, the whole shopping experience must be revitalised and transformed, to allow for increased hygiene and safety measures, but also addressing concerns around convenience, personalisation and ease of the consumer experience.”

He points out that retail technology is one option which offers a solution to a number of these challenges, “enabling retailers to easily uphold safety guidelines whilst also hyper personalising and improving the convenience,” he notes.

Will Broome’s business focus is Ubamarket, a scan, pay & go mobile app solution, designed to simplify in-store shopping, aims to help retailers offer a streamlined, convenient and hyper-personalised “select and pay” experience to their customers. The solution effectively puts the till in the customer’s hands on their own trusted device.

By using the Ubamarket app, shops can offer a range of features to significantly improve the experiential nature of their customers’ shopping experience.

Features such as pre-written shopping lists, aisle sat-nav, one-tap in-app payments, exclusive access to personalised deals, automatic loyalty point collection, table delivery, collection points and facial recognition/age verification (for age restricted products) are brought together in one all-encompassing app, helping to rebuild consumer confidence in-store by enabling a fully socially distanced experience; whilst simultaneously reducing their shopping time, leaving them with the more enjoyable aspects of the process.

Whilst BOON, a startup from Southampton, is employing artificial intelligence technology and psychology research to help online shoppers find the perfect products for themselves or a gift recipient whilst retaining complete control of their data.

BOON’s founders, Dylan Grey explains: “Often, as you browse a retailer’s site, your actions are being collected and assigned to your account if you’re logged in, or your computer or phone if you’re not. These actions, such as your clicks and dwell time, are fed into an AI system to predict which products you are most likely to buy and make recommendations to you in the form of product listings, bundle recommendations or basket add-ons. This all happens behind the scenes.

“However, as data privacy regulations become stricter and more shoppers are making use of tracking blockers, we need to find a better way to help people find great products. By using psychology research, we can create engaging, interactive experiences for consumers where they consciously provide a minimal amount of data to receive excellent product recommendations”, he says.

BOON uses a new recommendation engine for anonymous data collection, as Grey explains: “BOON’s technology, Spotlight, gives consumers full control of their data. Instead of recording their actions behind the scenes, we create digital shopping assistants that ask the shopper about themselves or a gift recipient. Their responses remain anonymous and are analysed by our AI recommendation engine to pick out the best products for their situation.

“We use psychology research to design our questions, so they may not seem directly relatable to specific products. For instance, asking an image-based question like “Which of these holidays looks most relaxing?” helps to establish an accurate picture of the shopper’s values, which in turn allows our AI to generate ever more accurate recommendations. Users can rate or replace their product recommendations, automatically improving the system for each subsequent shopper”, he explains.

Speaking about the evolution of the online shopping experience and what customers expect from the experience Grey says: “Customers want an enjoyable experience. An important step towards achieving this is delivering a stress-free experience, which means refining the customer journey from landing through to checkout, delivery and messaging. It’s got to be as simple and enjoyable as the in-store experience especially now that many high street stores are shut.

“At BOON, we focus on improving product discovery. Conventional product listings can be tedious and overwhelming for shoppers, who often want an alternative way to search or browse. Retailers must offer these additional features, whether that’s through a digital shopping assistant like BOON, image-similarity search or comprehensive and intuitive filters, he adds.

Speaking about how online retailers can look to maximise content and user interaction, Grey identifies intuitive, interactive experiences as specific to the retailer’s brand and style: “Taking BOON as an example, retailers can offer their customers a unique experience, designed around the product range and user base. It’s a fun, interactive experience that specifically helps the segment of shoppers, who need help with their product search or are looking for inspiration. Our technology reacts to users as they answer, making sure that the questions they’re asked are relevant. This kind of personalisation can create a far more immersive experience that encourages shoppers to explore the site more and make a purchase.

“In addition, creating an online experience that is less solitary can dramatically increase user-generated content, and encourage user interaction. For instance, trying to build communities and focusing on product reviews helps to make shoppers feel at ease and build a connection with the brand”, he adds.

Russell Loarridge, Director, ReachFive, provider of the cloud-based customer identity and access management enterprise platform, speaks of his experiences and the current innovations in AI: “In my experience of the retail market over the last 20+ years, the recent innovative use of AI has for the most part been to make sense of the petabytes of data collected per page and click on each visitor. Typically, this has been unsuccessful, as there is no AI system that can guess the underlying reason a person is on a site, such as shopping for themselves, their grandson, as a competitor etc. Typical uses of AI that have some degree of success have been associated with the back office, looking specifically at stock levels and how to present it to maximise revenues. This is a far cry from using AI to replicate the in-store shop assistant.

“Most companies are using anonymous data collection, reference the incessant requests to accept site cookies, which we are all sick of. The fact that browsers are, for the most part, dropping third party cookies, will have a negative impact on a brand’s ability to continue to track and trace an individual consumer. However, if there had been anything sensible done with the information, outside creating advertising revenues for site owners, I might mourn their passing. As it is, I don’t”, says Loarridge.

Speaking about the evolving online shopping experience and what customers expect out of the experience now, Loarridge says: “We can expect more first-party request for data. Additionally, brand-marketing executives may have their individual light bulb moments where reliance on the tech to do their job dissolves and they realise that consumers are individuals who are happy to share their personal preferences – IF the brand tells them what they are going to do with the information to make their lives better. Today, that ‘give to get’ transaction is opaque at best and consumers desire for a personalised experience far outstrips brand’s ability to provide one.”

Focusing on how online retailers can maximise content and user interaction, Loarridge says: “Online retailers should use the information shared by the consumer to provide a relevant personalised service that drives repeat visits and loyalty.”

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