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Cast your mind back to around the year 2005 and you’ll remember a revolution in technology. Think about the introduction of a machine so smart that it promised to serve you in a supermarket while cutting wait times and reducing the amount of time staff spent on rote tasks. This technology is best known as the self-service register.
Consumers were suspicious at first, but people like me were soon impressed by this technology. Now, my heart sinks when I hear the familiar twang of “unexpected item in the bagging area,” as this means an actual employee is on the way to assist me.

We’ve come a long way over the past 10 to 12 years, and technology has moved on to far wilder realms than a computerized till. New faces like Asos have taken on brick and mortar stores, and the rise of technology like drones have made same-hour delivery possible.Technology is constantly evolving, yet we’ve still not seen anything take the market by storm quite like the smartphone. However, AI chatbots and voice assistants have the potential to transform commerce in a similar way.

The virtual shopping assistant

There are two key reasons why these technologies are likely to make a significant impact. First, the way we shop is changing. We demand convenience at all times, and fast, painless, and efficient experiences are key. Although conversational commerce isn’t mature enough to provide this convenience yet, it could be when voice assistants combine with or easily connect to screens, allowing users to see potential purchases like clothing before buying. Amazon’s hands-free style assistant the Echo Look is already fulfilling this need in the U.S.

The second reason chatbots and voice assistants are likely to make notable change is that we’re seeing businesses looking to maximize their cost-efficiency by streamlining their operations. Both of these factors combined explain the rise in popularity of AI bots providing the experience of a personal assistant, be it a chatbot or a voice assistant.


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Last Christmas, millions of people purchased Alexa products, and sales of Echo speakers increased ninefold. Currently, one in five people would consider making purchases through a bot and would spend an average of £500 ($598.34) using AI to make purchases. Gartner predicts that AI bots will power more than four in five customer service interactions (85 percent) by 2020.

Last week, Microsoft and Amazon announced a surprising partnership. Their joint venture integrates their voice assistants, Cortana and Alexa. This move will create a specialized assistant with access to a wider pool of data. All businesses hoping to succeed in a voice-driven ecommerce world will need a strategy for leveraging this new technology. Soon, it will become commonplace for people to start an online search by speaking to an assistant. The assistant will sort the results based on factors like past preferences, how the user articulated their question, and how a business has categorized and described its inventory.

Until recently, Google has dominated the world of online search. Now Amazon is the new Google for ecommerce. According to one study, 55 percent of all U.S. online searches now start on Amazon. People don’t want to waste time searching the entire internet on Google when they can go straight to a marketplace designed for making purchases. This behavior is only going to intensify with the rise of AI voice assistants. These devices sit in our homes and search on our behalf, removing another layer of hassle for the buyer.

Adapting to conversational commerce

It’s crucial that businesses understand how to boost their products to the top of search results in an online marketplace. On Amazon, for instance, the way to do this is through recent positive, authentic reviews; consistent imagery that is appropriately tagged; product descriptions that describe the item in detail; competitive pricing; and properly categorized items. Similarly, understanding how people will be interacting with the bots when shopping conversationally is key to using the technology.

The natural inclination when chatting to an Alexa device is to speak to it like it’s a human personal assistant, which is different from what you’d type into a search engine. For instance, when viewing a pair of trousers, a user may ask “What tops match these?” Businesses will need to format their product data (including semantically relevant keywords) to cope with these challenges. Otherwise, results will be poor quality, and shoppers will abandon their purchases and go elsewhere.

The self-service register was the earliest example of conversational commerce, but we’ve come a long way since. We’ve moved onto AI personal assistants embedded in our homes, mobile phones, and the ecommerce experience. As soon as mobile screens and better bandwidth were available, we saw mobile commerce take off. The same will happen with conversational commerce in the coming years.

Ed Bussey is the CEO and founder of Quill, a leading provider of high-scale international 

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