There’s good old-fashioned customer service – and then there’s artificial intelligence chatbots that can answer customers’ questions, create their grocery lists, make their travel plans, and let them see how they’ll look in a new outfit.
As humans’ appetite for AI-based tools grows, retailers and brands are using language-based tools like ChatGPT, created by OpenAI, to build better customer connections and enhance their shopping experiences.
This month, Expedia launched a new travel-planning tool integrating ChatGPT. It gives members the ability to build their perfect itinerary – including where to stay, what to do and how to get around – just by starting a conversation in the app. In Europe, French grocery giant Carrefour has been testing videos on its website created with ChatGPT and generative AI (the umbrella term for AI that can produce content on demand) that use human-like avatars to answer customers’ questions about purchasing healthier foods for less. Consumer packaged goods brands like Hellmann’s are getting in on the chatbot action, too.
“Today’s AI technology is revolutionizing the relationship between brands and their consumers,” says Kristen Denega, Canada Hellmann’s market lead & North American innovations at Unilever.
During the holidays in 2022, Denega saw an opportunity to marry AI and the Hellmann’s brand to help Canadians save on groceries. In exchange for inputting their fridge and pantry ingredients (including Hellmann’s mayonnaise) into ChatGPT, consumers received a tasty recipe they may not have considered otherwise.
“We collaborated with TikTok creators to show how they transformed their holiday leftovers into a delicious meal using ChatGPT and Hellmann’s mayo,” says Denega. “This allowed us to connect with everyday Canadians and inspire them to save and repurpose their leftovers during one of the most wasteful times of the year.”
She says Hellmann’s is always looking for creative ways to communicate with consumers about food waste and how to think differently about the value of foods in their fridge. “ChatGPT provided us with a culturally relevant opportunity to do just that by tapping into a moment in time when everyone was experimenting with this platform,” she says.
With the evolution of AI capabilities over the last decade, analysts say we’re finally at a point where AI applications like ChatGPT have the potential to significantly improve retailer-shopper connections. Research shows that shoppers are becoming more receptive to this technology, too. According to a 2023 U.S. survey commissioned by software provider Redpoint Global, almost half of respondents (48 per cent) said they would interact with AI more frequently if it would make their customer experience with a brand more seamless, consistent and convenient.
“Generative AI is giving us opportunities for interaction from a virtual perspective that brings in much more of an emotional connection with customers,” says Krish Banerjee, Canada managing director (partner), data, analytics & applied intelligence at Accenture.
Rather than just focusing on transactions, he says retailers can start to better understand customers’ behaviours to personalize marketing efforts and provide useful recommendations. “Understanding the language of their interactions and understanding their expectations is all part of what generative AI is providing us with which wasn’t here before,” he says.
In addition to powering intuitive customer service bots, Banerjee says retailers are experimenting with virtual try-ons that allow customers to see how products would look on them before they buy. We can also expect to see future AI applications around collaborative product design where retailers work with their customers from initial concept to finished item.
Going forward, Banerjee says a key part in evolving and improving AI applications will rely on giving consumers better control of the data they’re willing to share with retailers, which will allow for a more tailored use of their information. “Now it’s based on what websites I’m browsing and cookies that go away in a couple of years and the information I’ve provided in social media,” he says.
Accenture’s recently released Technology Vision 2023 report points to transparency becoming a company’s most precious resource as we start a new era of business. The report notes 87 per cent of Canadian executives say data transparency is becoming a competitive differentiator for their organizations.
Marrying all that customer information now collected from various sources will be challenging for retailers, says Stewart Samuel, director of retail futures at IGD, a research organization focused on the grocery sector. “It’s not just a matter of turning on ChatGPT and expecting good results,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to be done ahead of that, including figuring out how to protect customer data and [adhere] to regulatory frameworks.”
That said, Samuel believes retailers have much to gain from being early adopters of AI technologies that can enhance shopping experiences, especially because these tools can be refined and improved once implemented.
“AI is an area where you can create an advantage early on and then continue to grow that advantage,” he says. “The sooner you get into it, the sooner you can make incremental improvements to your business, and these tools can learn and adapt from that.”