With conversational commerce mushrooming throughout the retail world, it surely must have the feel of déjà vu for the iconic 1-800-Flowers.com brand.
Founded in 1976 and branded with its workhorse 1-800-Flowers phone number in 1986, the company can point to its penchant for speaking directly to its customers as a reason for its longevity — first through the phone and then across the internet.
The process of conversational commerce uses remarkably intuitive technology tools such as voice messaging and chatbot applications to facilitate seamless interactions between brands and shoppers to drive transactions or trigger service. Voice protocols are emerging as the dominant technique fueling conversational commerce, notably voice assistants such as Apple Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. In addition, text-enabled chatbots are proliferating to help consumers through human-like conversations.
1-800-Flowers’ Chief Marketing Officer Amit Shah says conversational commerce harkens brands back to a day when one-on-one conversations were the centerpiece of personalized and customized experiences with customers. “Conversations have been around since the beginning of commerce,” he says. “Most were one-on-one conversations.”
With brands ranging from gourmet food and gift baskets to consumer floral goods through names that include Harry & David, Cheryl’s Cookies and The Popcorn Factory, 1-800-Flowers is a willing purveyor of all that conversational commerce has to offer.
During recent Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day shopping seasons, which are among the company’s busiest sales periods, it pushed adoption of emerging conversational commerce tools to its customer base. The company and its 3,000 employees create 20 million gifts annually, generating $1.2 billion in sales in fiscal 2018.
“Ultimately, the adoption of the platforms themselves is leading to this really interesting dynamic where conversational commerce is coming back with some of the same constructs that we had when we had one-on-one personalized commerce on the shop floor,” Shah says.
Hype is inherent when new technologies push out, but technology consultant Capgemini forecasts that conversational commerce “will revolutionize how consumers and brands interact in ways not witnessed since the dawn of ecommerce.” Capgemini calls early adoption for conversational commerce “extraordinary” and reports that investment and innovation are following rapidly: Through 2017, 51 percent of consumers reported already using voice assistants, with 81 percent of that use via smartphones.
Market researcher Gartner Inc. predicts that end-user spending globally for the virtual personal assistant-enabled wireless speaker market will reach $3.5 billion by 2021, up from less than $1 billion in 2016. The market is essential for gauging the growth of conversational commerce as it accounts for the actual devices that fuel it, including Amazon Echo and Google Home devices.
For merchants specifically, the Capgemini report says conversational commerce will extend the reach of physical and online stores, invariably leading to what it calls “boundary-less commerce.”
Shah says the dawn of ecommerce initially put a crimp into the way goods were sold on a conversational level, as retailers evolved to a web-centric paradigm. That included 1-800-Flowers and its mainstay phone conversations with customers to a shift to the web-query search. That modality, however, steered customers away from talking directly with brands for ordering and service and essentially sent them to static online catalogs for information.
“But over the past five years with conversational commerce, things are shifting back to the one-on-one conversation,” Shah says. “It means again having more context surrounding the user.”
With advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning layered in the technology, the compelling case for use of virtual assistants for merchants and consumers is that the tools do tasks that only could be accomplished manually in the past by humans. With machine learning, for instance, devices can perform functions that include processing the nuances of natural language, automating tasks, predicting outcomes, creating data schemes from observing behaviors and recommending actions for consumers to take.
The tools today are so reliable that “you can take a phrase and pull it apart and the computer can understand what’s being asked of it,” says Dan Mitchell, director of global retail and consumer packaged goods for technology provider SAS. “The computer then can actually return a statement or a response to the conversation in English.”
Mitchell says the technologies that are driving conversational commerce are powered by large set-data collection and analysis. Information about all previous consumer interactions and conversations with merchants and brands are gathered and connected to create the most relevant conversations and responses.
“It is those data breadcrumbs where the powerful insights reside to fuel these conversations,” he says. “It gets all of the good and bad data interactions, the ones that work and the ones that didn’t. Those are the things that allow us to power these conversations in a meaningful way.”
Among its channels, 1-800-Flowers uses Facebook Messenger to facilitate conversations with its customers: If a client uses Facebook Messenger to send a gift basket to a sick relative, the next time they use the platform for a transaction, the company recognizes the customer natively through that data and can track the interaction and address the customer accordingly.
That means personalization, Shah says.
“It is not good enough anymore to say we accept credit cards,” Shah says. “If they always use Apple Pay, it is pointless to show them all the other payment options at checkout if previous instances show they used Apple Pay. Conversely, if the platform of choice is Android, Apple Pay does not work, and we will introduce Google Pay. It makes for a complete conversation when you are able to contextualize the outcome.”
Both Shah and Mitchell note that as the use of conversational commerce grows, the speed of the outcome of the interaction will be paramount. For instance, during the early days of ecommerce, customers seeking to modify orders would have to dial into a call center and speak directly with an agent.
Shah says while that call center process generated a one-on-one conversation with the customer, it also could be slow and taxing on back office operations.
“When customers are expecting to have a one-on-one conversation, we are looking for that outcome to be speeded up,” Shah says. “Cycle time requirements need to be faster.”
Mitchell says the effective mining and analysis of customer data will allow retailers and brands to adapt quickly to customer needs in their marketing while promoting greater personalization.
“The platform for the way people shop is always a moving target,” he says. “Conversational commerce lets you test out new things in new arenas and be agile enough to look at the next horizon and be aware of the next event.”
M.V. Greene is an independent writer and editor based in Owings Mills, Md., who covers business, technology and retail.