Why 1-800-Flowers, eBay, Cosabella are hot for AI
1-800-Flowers.com CEO Chris McCann speaks during a panel session on artificial intelligence at The Big Show/NRF 2018. Photo courtesy of NRF.
Cosabella, eBay and 1-800-Flowers.com may not appear to have many things in common at first glance. While Cosabella and 1-800-Flowers.com are family owned, the first was launched in 1983, as an importer/exporter of Italian-made garments. 1-800-Flowers.com debuted in 1976, long before the web arrived, and was a pioneer in tapping the toll-free phone system to reach and serve customers in direct sales.
And then there's eBay, founded in 1995, and boasting its own successful e-commerce history that evolved from online auction sales to offering services such PayPal and online ticket sales.
But a closer look at the three retailers reveals a strong passion for driving personalization and customization and staying at the forefront of conversational commerce to ensure customers get what they want, what they expect and, quite frankly, what they're demanding when it comes to ways to interact and buy.
The retailers also have another common trait: an ongoing love of technology. Leaders shared their passion for emerging tools, specifically artificial intelligence, during a panel, "How AI is currently powering retail's growth," at the annual NRF ‘Big Show' held last week in New York City.
Embracing technology to boost customer experience
For 1-800-Flowers.com, which has greatly expanded its product reach beyond flowers to gifts and gourmet foods, jumping on AI didn't require any second thought as the omnichannel player is no stranger to embracing emerging technology to drive personalization and customization strategies.
In fact, as CEO Chris McCann noted, his company has long been a groundbreaker and a disruptor in the U.S. floral industry.
"Things are constantly changing. We learned early on that we needed to be involved in emerging technology and that if something was going to disrupt our business then it should be us," he told a standing-room-only crowd at the Javits Conference Center.
That goal was born from the fact that 1-800-Flowers didn't debut as an e-commerce player but one embracing the most innovative tech in play nearly 30 years ago — the 1-800 toll-free phone number. The retailer jumped online in 1991, and was the first to be selling on the leading ISP's web presence at the time — AOL — which was providing one of the earliest dial-up ramps to the prepubescent web.
"In 1997 consumers decided the web was the platform and we were on the front of that wave," said McMann, describing it as the third wave of retail innovation. But it's the fourth wave he believes has truly set retail in a new direction: the arrival of mobile devices and social media.
"That's transformed the business and how we live today," he said, noting the fifth wave — conversational commerce — has arrived and there's a bit of irony in play.
"We're moving to artificial intelligence and augmented reality capabilities and voice and so it's all coming back to voice," he said. "It's all about the one-to-one relationship with customers and giving consumers what they chose. They're in charge. If consumers are going there [mobile, AI/AR], then we have no choice but to go there too."
In the past several years 1-800-Flowers has not only embraced and deployed AI and AR strategies but embraced social tools such as Facebook Messenger as a fully functioning transactional channel. The company has over one billion users on Messenger.
Its latest AI push has focused on Amazon's voice assistant platform Echo and Google Voice. Consumers can simply ask Alexa or Siri's help in placing an order without having to get on a phone, desktop PC, smartphone or tablet.
"We're in the midst of another transformation of our company as we're using AI to deliver more personal technology. We are feeling the pressure to go faster and faster and faster as adoption [of these technologies] by the consumer is fast," said McCann.
Making the shift from exporter to direct consumer sales
Cosabella, a high-end lingerie brand with retail shops in the U.S., Italy, France and South Korea, that also sells via retailers such as Neiman Marcus, embraced AI but faced one big challenge, said Silvia Campello, president CEO.
It meant having to change the mindset of the company.
"The consumer strategy was happening at the end of the [strategy] process," Campello shared during the panel. "We had to really understand our customers," she added, noting studies claim 85 percent of retail customer interaction is expected to be based on AI come 2020.
The technology, she explained, is being woven into everything retail — from advertising to email automation, to customization and personalization strategies.
When it comes to retail success it all comes down to one element, said Campello."Data is more valuable than anything else," she said.
eBay shares a very similar view of data and artificial intelligence.
As Kris Miller, chief strategy officer, shared in the talk, the online marketplace, which now boasts 168 million buyers and 11 billion item listings, has been embracing data for over two decades.
"It's very very ripe for AI to improve the [customer] journey," she said, explaining eBay is tapping the technology for every aspect of its business — to help serve up product recommendations, improve the browsing experience and enhancing personalization in the consumer's product decision.
eBay customers can now create their own personal storefronts on the site, which can make finding and buying what they want faster, easier and seamless, said Miller.
The quest, she added, is to make the eBay experience as "simple as talking to a friend."
Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.www