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Where is the Online Shop Assistant?
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Where is the Online Shop Assistant?

Alan Gormley
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Shop assistants play a central role in offline shopping, so why is there no equivalent online? When we land in an online store we are left to our own devices to find products. There is no real mechanism for ideas and suggestions, just utilitarian tools like search and filter. Those will find a product (usually) but offer no advice, suggestions or guidance. What we have seen so far in Shopbox shows there is a real missed opportunity. To understand why we can look at why we have shop assistants in a physical store.

What’s the value of a shop assistant?

Putting the operational stuff aside the list would run something like

  • Customer satisfaction through excellent sales service
  • Ascertain customers’ needs and wants
  • Recommend and display items that match customer needs
  • Welcome and greet customers
  • Accurately describe product features and benefits

The benefits they bring are that customers:

  • Stay in the shop instead of wandering next door
  • Consider more options
  • Get more ideas of products they were not thinking about
  • Get re-assurance they are buying the right product
  • Ultimately, buy more, more often

All this is because shop assistants guide and suggest. Everyone knows they are there to sell but they really enhance our shopping experience.

So why can't we have the same experience online?

Partly I think it is history and partly inertia.

First history. Until recently, the technology was not at the right point. Guiding customers with widely varying needs through an ever-changing product catalogue is not trivial. It is only very recently that computing power has made it cost-effective to do so in real-time - while someone is shopping.

You can make suggestions after the fact by email but it misses the real opportunity to grab attention when customers are primed to buy. Email helps of course, so let’s not ignore it, but it only grabs a portion of the potential value.

So, if the computing power is there now, it is really down to inertia. It’s actually a bit more than inertia. The technology is there, but it is not easy to use. In fact, there are a lot of barriers to entry that we have had to overcome (lack of skills, taking too long to implement etc etc.). The good news is that we have developed a systematic approach which addresses these barriers.

Guiding and advising in real-time is no longer just available to the internet giants.

The importance on an online sales assistant

Sales, sales, sales. But also the cost of sale. Competition for the customer is driving up costs. Shop assistants in the online store, keep people in-store and help protect from having to re-acquire customers. For some, this is actually about survival. If customers use you more for price comparison than research, pressure increases on margin. The costs of driving traffic to compensate for customers leaking out before they buy is driving margins to zero.

Done well, online digital shop assistants add straight to the bottom line. What is really interesting is how. I’ll do another piece on the results we are finding on how individuals move through the online shopping process, but for now, all we need is one fact that everything else flows from – Before committing to buy a product, people spend over 48 hours on research. That’s 48 hours they are currently wandering around the online store as “anonymous”.

Influencing during research has a deeper effect than trying to “personalise” when they have already made their minds up.

Here is what we’ve seen on influencing early.

  1. Research is about variety and range – not finding the single perfect product. If the customer knows you can provide a range, relevant to them, they engage.
  2. By engage we mean they use you for research, not just price comparison. We see this in them looking at more products across a wider range. We also see this by them returning more often to review ideas.
  3. Range is not about finding the right product. It’s about intelligent variety. Not too many and not few. In the early stages of the shopping journey, range and relevant are more important than the perfect fit.
  4. Once you get through all that, you are already influencing them. You stopped them going to Amazon and Google for primary research, and the conversion rates show the impact.

So what about Amazon?

A few things worth thinking about here.

  1. Amazon has been doing this for 20 years.
  2. Amazon does this across a near infinite product range.
  3. Amazon influence every aspect of the shopping journey.

These add up to one thing. To do this well, it needs to be automated. Plugging rules into a personalisation engine to map “like” products takes no account of the customer. It also creates ongoing costs, and we’ve seen in most cases it has limited value.

This is a maths problem we solve with a new breed of AI engine which understands retail.

I’ll be writing more on that soon. In the meantime, if you want to know more, contact us and we’ll be happy to show you how it works and if it would fit for you.


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