Digital disruption sets the tone for a new year — again


A new year is upon us, with new challenges and new opportunities. At the same time, retailers continue to struggle with how to embrace the digital disruptors that are redefining the retail customer and retail experience. Because one thing is clear: They are here to stay.

Indeed, these agents of change continue to pop up on a daily basis, each one designed to transform the trajectory of retail — and brands with an eye on the future should want in. After all, what retailer doesn’t want to reinvent their enterprise, drive agility and foster customer engagement in a new way?

But with so many innovations emerging, what will be the most intriguing concepts for 2017? Here are my top picks:

Conversational commerce

A phrase coined by Uber’s developer experience lead Chris Messina back in 2015, conversational commerce intersects messaging apps and shopping. Consumers are already getting their feet wet with “connected home” devices, such as Amazon Echo, Amazon Dot, Google Home and even Apple’s mobile devices. Embedded with an artificial intelligence assistant app, users are connected with web-based information via voice commands, such as adding items to virtual shopping lists or making online purchases. Now it’s up to retailers to learn how to embrace the disruptor to drive engagement.


Chains that offer in-store clientelling should explore how chatbots can augment this intimate service. A computer program designed to simulate conversations with human users, chatbots leverage messaging platforms to deliver a “personalized experience.”

Eager to reign in harried holiday shoppers, Nordstrom debuted a limited edition chatbot in December. Accessible through Facebook Messenger and Kik, the program asked shoppers relevant questions about who they were shopping for. Based on their answers, the bot suggested tailored gift ideas. The app also connected shoppers with a digital customer care specialist or specific products.

Machine learning

Whether trained for a specific task or learning from gleaned information, computers that support AI can help retailers manage customer expectations earlier in the sales process. Besides helping retailers predict and target offerings to specific shoppers, AI can manage inventory and optimize web-based customer-facing content. Staples is piloting a machine learning-enabled office supply reordering system with business-to-business customers. By integrating IBM’s Watson technology with internal personalization APIs, the service learns about each businesses’ preferred products and quantities. As the system becomes “smarter,” it will make product and service recommendations based on the customer’s current needs.

Virtual reality

One of the most coveted holiday gifts, virtual reality is increasingly finding its place as a retail solution — especially in customer engagement applications. Lowe’s and Sam’s Club have already tried their hands at augmented reality solutions. Even Wayfair and Ashley Furniture recently adopted the disruptor to help shoppers visualize how furnishings can fit into their personal space.

However, the key to driving a successful VR program will rely on blending this 3D visualization with the expertise of knowledgeable sales people — a combination that will not only create a unique shopping experience, but become a brand differentiator.

Deena Amato-McCoy

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