Why A Third Of Retailers Continue To Shun AI And Voice-Activation

“If someone wants a human, they will obviously be disappointed by an AI bot/assistant,” says eMarketer principal analyst Victoria Petrock.

The retail industry has been gradually ramping up its use of artificial intelligence and voice-activation “skills,” there are still some holdouts due the lack of “human-ness” that nuanced and complex customer service tends to demand, a study cited by eMarketer shows.

Pointing to a survey of retailers by AI platform Linc and Brand Garage from May, eMarketer notes that over a third (34.1 percent) of US retail executives claim to be piloting AI programs.

The main use cases involve assisting human sales and customer service reps in dealing with shoppers’ problems or through quick conversations via chatbots.

As company’s like Facebook continue to explore the use the AI and chatbots, retailers and other brick-and-mortar brands, along with their customers, will be experiencing more contact with AI whether they’re ready or not.

This week, Facebook acquired AI developer Ozlo to support its Messenger platform. Ozlo is primarily focused on building messenger bots that allows AI systems to respond to text-based take-out orders, connect consumers with ride-hailing services, among many other things.

Facebook has been building out its own intelligent agent, dubbed “M,” for over a year. By incorporating deeper machine learning techniques to better understand consumers and “recommend” a food order or ride service, the social network may help address one of the pain points that retailers say continues to hold them back from fully adopting AI programs.

Glass One-Third Full?

At the moment, just 7.7 percent of retailers surveyed by Linc and Brand Garage have an existing, ongoing role for AI in their customer service programs.

For the ones who have not created a program for voice-activated assistants or chatbots, over a third (36.2 percent) say the technology isn’t sophisticated enough to do what they need. Many retailers say they don’t have the technical resources to support an AI initiative. Still others remain dubious that the technologies are ready to reach the mainstream at this early point.

On top of that, a perceptible minority — 8.7 percent — contend that implementing machine-based conversations would repel some consumers because of the sense that the direct connection with consumers would be eroded.

“If someone wants a human, they will obviously be disappointed by an AI bot/assistant,” says eMarketer principal analyst Victoria Petrock. “However, as the systems ‘learn’ customers’ preferences and become more sophisticated at predicting their wants and needs, AI bots might actually deliver up a more precise and personalized experience. They also may free up the employees to do higher-level work.”

Erik Lautier, EVP of e-commerce/CMO at Francesca’s, a US-based women’s clothing and accessories boutique with hundreds of locations, is one retail executive that has been bullish on AI.

“We’re currently experimenting with two things: first, our chatbot on Facebook Messenger shows our customers weather-based outfitting recommendations, closest boutique locations, etc.; second, our customers can receive shipping updates via Facebook Messenger or SMS,” Lautier said in the Linc/Brand Garage survey.

“While ROI is a challenge to measure near-term, as we enhance our capabilities in CRM, I expect we’ll develop an understanding of how segments that interact with AI perform relative to others,” Lautier added. “We also haven’t approached our testing with an ‘ROI first’ mentality. We’ve developed these things because we felt a certain customer segment would find genuine value in it, and we expect that segment to grow in the months to come.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.