Retailers Invest in Chatbots, But Consumers Remain Ambivalent

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If you talk with technology consultants, investors and some retailers, chatbots and other digital, AI-based, consumer-facing technologies are the best thing for business since sliced bread. And many retailer brands have invested heavily in them.

But ask shoppers? Not so much. In fact, their patented lack of enthusiasm for many of the new technology-enabled interfaces with store brands could imperil the future of the entire strategy.

Lowe’s has a “holoroom” that lets customers design spaces with virtual reality goggles, Bloomberg noted. Nordstrom has a chatbot for the Christmas holidays that is meant to help customers with gift ideas as a substitute for a human store assistant. Rebecca Minkoff, the women’s clothing retailer, has futuristic walls. IKEA has an augmented reality catalog. And so on.

But, the news service reported, most of these novel approaches aren’t quite catching on with actual humans who must use them. Just 18 percent of the more than 1,000 consumers recently polled by YouGov, for example, thought that smart mirrors would improve their shopping experience. And only 21 percent of those surveyed said virtual assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are making the buying process better from their homes.

Retailers “may be very excited,” said Maya Mikhailov, co-founder of GPShopper, who works on commerce tools for major retailer brands, “but consumers aren’t necessarily as eager.”

True, iPads have become useful tools for retailers as they equip associates with the computers to attempt to siphon shoppers who are “showrooming” in brick-and-mortar outlets into placing their orders digitally with the store right on the spot, as Adweek noted.

And investors and some in the retail industry are excited for more. Chatbots were all the rage at the National Retail Federation Big Show in January, Forbes.com said. And writing on Venturebeat, Kyle Fugere of Dunnhumby Ventures opined that “2017 has the potential to turn voice-assistant technology into a virtual customer-service functionality. The convergence of chatbots and virtual voice assistants has the potential to completely change the retail experience.”

But just hold on, shoppers seem to be saying in their clear ambivalence toward these technologies. Obstacles in the way of their broader embrace include lack of familiarity with the new digital tools, preference to interface with other humans, and technology hiccups that have been known to plunge chatbot conversations into inanity.

And, explained Mikhailov, what remains important to shoppers is buying things as quickly and easily as possible. In fact, Bloomberg said, surveys show that the one fancy, technology-based advance in shopping that most consumers actually want is self-checkout.

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