Thumbs-down on tech for shop­pers

‘Peo­ple just want to buy stuff as quickly and eas­ily as pos­si­ble’

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - KIM BHASIN Bloomberg

Stores are spend­ing lots of time and money try­ing out new, fancy tech­nolo­gies such as touch screen mir­rors in chang­ing rooms and robo-as­sis­tants out in the racks to get con­sumers to buy more. Shop­pers couldn’t care less. Lowe’s, the home im­prove­ment store, has a “Holoroom” that lets cus­tomers de­sign spa­ces with vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gles.

Nord­strom has a chat­bot, an au­to­mated sub­sti­tute for a hu­man store as­sis­tant, meant to pro­vide shop­pers (both on­line and in­store) with gift ideas dur­ing the hol­i­days.

Re­becca Minkoff, the women’s cloth­ing re­tailer, has fu­tur­is­tic walls and mir­rors you can in­ter­act with — all in a bid to fa­cil­i­tate the shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence.

All novel ap­proaches, sure, but most aren’t catch­ing on, ac­cord­ing to a study by mo­bile com­merce and an­a­lyt­ics firm GPShop­per and market re­searcher YouGov. For ex­am­ple, just 18 per cent of the more than 1,000 con­sumers polled think smart mir­rors will im­prove their shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence.

At home, vir­tual as­sis­tants such as Ama­zon’s Echo and Google’s Home aren’t ex­actly rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing shop­ping, ei­ther. Only 21 per cent said their tech­nol­ogy makes the buy­ing process bet­ter from the house.

There’s a dis­con­nect be­tween stores and shop­pers over tech. Maya Mikhailov, a co-founder of GPShop­per, works on com­merce tools for stores such as Crate & Bar­rel, Lane Bryant, and Foot Locker. She ex­plained that while re­tail­ers fawn over the lat­est glitzy gad­get, hop­ing it’ll catch on as the next big thing, peo­ple just want to buy stuff as quickly and eas­ily as pos­si­ble.

“They may be very ex­cited,” Mikhailov said of stores, “but con­sumers aren’t nec­es­sar­ily as ea­ger as they are.”

In many cases, shop­pers don’t even know that the tech ex­ists. Most are fa­mil­iar with vir­tual re­al­ity, but few know about things such as aug­mented re­al­ity — the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of a real-world en­vi­ron­ment through a dig­i­tal de­vice — for ex­am­ple, Ikea’s tech­nol­ogy that lets you pre­view fur­ni­ture in your home.

Mikhailov sin­gled out the fail­ure of chat­bots, which many on­line shops now use, be­cause the tech­nol­ogy of pars­ing and learn­ing nat­u­ral lan­guage (as in chat­ting) isn’t quite there yet.

Asos Plc, an on­line cloth­ing re­tailer, ran into this prob­lem in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion last year when its cus­tomer ser­vice robo-an­swers be­came a punch­line. Con­sumers messed with the bot on its Face­book page af­ter it spouted ut­terly in­tel­li­gi­ble com­ments.

“This is the worst cus­tomer ser­vice al­go­rithm I have ever seen,” a cus­tomer named Adam wrote in frus­tra­tion on the com­pany’s Face­book page. Un­able to com­pute, it seems, the Asos chat­bot re­sponded as if “al­go­rithm” were an item he pur­chased. “Hey Adam! I’d love to help you out with this — could you please send me a pri­vate mes­sage with your or­der num­ber, date of birth, and email address? Once I have this I can then get on the case for you.”

Ama­zon and Asos didn’t im­me­di­ately re­turn a re­quest for comment.

Ev­ery­one has had an ex­pe­ri­ence with the overzeal­ous store as­sis­tant who needs to be shooed away while you mull which jeans to buy.

It seems con­sumers want to be left alone when it comes to non­hu­mans and fancy shop­ping gad­gets, too. The one thing they ac­tu­ally do want? Self-check­out. More than 50 per cent say it would help them shop in stores, too. Memo to re­tail­ers: just leave us alone.

TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

Lowe’s tested vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy for home im­prove­ment de­sign with the Holoroom at a Toronto store.

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