Retailers need to make the most of conversational commerce in 2021

It's time look towards a new future rather than back to the pre-pandemic ways of commerce, argues APAC director of Shopify Plus, Shaun Broughton

As consumers interacted with brands on different channels every day based on their lockdown, social distancing, quarantine or other restrictions, 2020 pushed retailers to re-invest in omnichannel marketing. Instead of relying on a ‘spray and pray’ approach to content development and customer engagement, which many marketers have survived on to date, a more focused approach has been required to reach customers where and when they are wanting to engage with brands. 

Consequently, conversational commerce presented opportunities to demonstrate a new level of value and customer experience for brands. These benefits came to fruition for brands that evaluated and quickly delivered conversational commerce based on customer needs, rather than overlooked it as another industry fad. Savvy retailers took advantage of conversational commerce in three standout ways.

  1. Simplifying and using conversational commerce with everyday tech

Put simply, conversational commerce involves customer engagement via chat or voice assistance. This is often through a messaging or social media app, such as Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger, or through chatbots directly on a retailer’s website. Despite the technology and capabilities of conversational commerce still evolving, it is simple in how it works and leverages apps and platforms that most consumers are already using every day, multiple times a day.

As the impact of the pandemic on the retail industry evolves, conversational commerce is likely to continue being a high-impact way for retailers to attract, maintain, and up-sell customers. However, retailers that overly complicate this investment will quickly fall behind competitors. Rather than seeing conversational commerce as a completely new business strategy that requires extensive technology investments and resources, retailers will save big by looking at options that exist off-the-shelf or are integrated into current technology platforms.

For example, research from last year found a 20% spike in one week and 39% spike in three weeks in mid-March and early April in Australians using chatbots via messaging channels such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and SMS to communicate with brands. Consumers were turning to conversational commerce to interact with businesses and get the information they needed while lockdowns were in place and global call centres were under-resourced or closed.

  1. Leveraging conversational commerce as a low-tech stepping stone to online carts

Particularly amid the recent shopping season, following Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Singles Day, Click Frenzy, Christmas and Boxing Day, retail customer experiences proved to be paramount. However, among the current seasonal and economic pressures, retailers are also facing higher customer expectations and volumes of customer engagement while having customer service budgets cut.

It may seem like a lose-lose for merchants, but the reality is conversational commerce offers the ideal solution for increased customer experience standards among tight budgets, without having to upskill in complex technology.

Well-established merchants, such as Peter Sheppard for example, were faced with the double-edged dilemma this year of many customers shifting their shopping online during the pandemic and demanding better online experiences, as well as many customers being very unfamiliar with how to approach and do online shopping after being loyal in-store customers for years. Instead of looking for brand new technology services to meet each of these challenges separately, the business invested in conversational commerce and other online customer experience tactics that specifically focused on helping traditional customers navigate the online shopping arena – this included how-to videos, online interactions with their favourite staff, and video chat appointments.

  1. Understanding the customer in real-time

Beyond customer data that shows who bought what and at what time, conversational commerce provides a new depth of customer understanding as customers are going through the decision-making process of purchasing a product. Pre-pandemic, many retailers would have sufficed with assumptions based on data about orders and marketing interactions, but in 2020, consumers’ pain points, needs, and demands changed daily and differed drastically based on location and other environmental circumstances. By having personal interactions on platforms that can be tracked to sales outcomes, retailers can benefit from not just improved and timely customer experience delivery, but also better and more accurate understanding of market demand.

As consumers gradually make their way back into stores, the pre-pandemic ways of interacting with retailers and brands have already changed for the long-term in many ways, including in how customers will expect retailers to be available and accessible on their preferred channels, even if those channels change daily. Conversational commerce holds the keys to understanding and interacting with customers in real-time, while guiding consumers through what can otherwise be an overwhelming or deprioritised process. Forward-thinking retailers will see this as a platform to decrease cart abandonment, deepen customer relationships, and maintain optimal customer experiences.

Shaun Broughton is the APAC director of Shopify Plus.


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