Infusing AI and Speech into the Mobile Retail Customer Experience

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According to the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics report released in early December 2019, a record 189.6 million U.S. shoppers went to stores and retail websites in the five days between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday. The challenge is how to keep them coming back. Technologies under the umbrella of artificial intelligence (AI), including speech technologies, can make that happen.

The benefits of employing AI technologies in the contact center are well known and include these: agent assistance or next-best-action recommendations; application adaptation or recommended adaptation with human supervision; continuous application improvement through self-learning; enhanced process automation to reduce costs and improve the employee experience; pattern recognition to provide insights into agent and customer behavior; and predictive models to improve business outcomes.

But within the retail customer experience in particular, these technologies are being harnessed for enhanced customer engagement. Their presence is being felt in digital channels such as mobile apps, intelligent virtual assistants, and chatbots, but they are also increasingly permeating the in-store buying experience. For instance, numerous name brands have deployed creative in-store applications that include cashier-less checkout, smart carts, and location-based loyalty program services.

In fact, the rapid rise in mobile device usage has proven to be one of the most significant developments in retail, as it impacts in-store and on-the-go shopping experiences. According to Nosto, an AI personalization platform, shopping via mobile phone accounted for nearly 67 percent of traffic to fashion retail sites and 52 percent of sales over the 2019 Black Friday to Cyber Monday time frame.

And speech technologies flourish in this mobile app environment. For example, a late 2019 capability launched by Walmart, through a partnership with Apple, lets online shoppers equipped with Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, add items to their online shopping cart using their voice and a tablet or iPhone. But speech and text-to-speech also are being used throughout retail via chatbots. For instance, beauty retailer Sephora provides a rich customer experience that includes natural language voice search for products and a virtual artist that allows customers to “try on” different makeup without actually applying it. Sephora’s app also has community groups, virtual tutorials, and search for product information, classes, events, promotions, and other information.

In today’s highly competitive retail market, speech-enabled mobile apps are a great way to cement brand loyalty through omnichannel customer journeys. Take, for example, Home Depot, whose mobile app employs numerous AI technologies, including facial recognition or touch ID to sign in to the app and voice or image search to find products. With image search, customers can take pictures of products and the app will help them find similar products and point them to the right place in the store or check inventory. It also provides a bar code scan to get information and pricing on the product. If customers need further assistance, the app can connect them directly to a sales associate.

Home furnishing retailer Wayfair, in response to the nearly half of its customers who purchase on mobile devices, refreshed its mobile app to include augmented reality (AR), photo searching, and a 3-D room planner to enable customers to visualize what their rooms would look like with Wayfair products in various placements.

Another popular retail app, from fashion retailer H&M, provides a full shopping experience for customers. In addition to loyalty program perks, such as discounts and free returns, it has location-based services and promo codes for in-store use. For added convenience it allows customers to scan bar codes and check stock (in-store or online), as well as use pictures of their own clothes and shoes to find similar items.

These examples are just a smattering of advancements retailers have made through AI-powered mobile applications that use speech and voice technologies as part of an omnichannel approach. But to remain competitive, today’s retailers must continue to come up with strategies that fuse the best of online and mobile with in-store channels to create consistent, and better, CX where customers prefer to shop.  

Nancy Jamison is a principal analyst in information and communications technologies at Frost & Sullivan. She can be reached at nancy.jamison@frost.com, or follow her on Twitter @NancyJami.

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