As industries go, the world of eCommerce is still a newborn baby. From its origins in static ads and interstitials to the birth of increasingly intelligent algorithms, the technology being used is evolving quickly and without respite.
To reflect this in our latest series of blogs we’ve been speaking to the best and brightest in eCommerce and retail to find out what the future will hold.
This week we’re speaking to Sean Hargrave, a freelance journalist writing for publications including The Guardian and MediaPost.
Are you seeing machine learning happening more out in the wild?
Yes. But it's very simple right now. Every new technology goes through its WAP stage and this is where machine learning is at now. It isn't yet performing at a 4G capacity but this is only the beginning.
For example, have you ever tried to 'talk' to BA's chatbot? At the moment it's just a very poor search engine. There’s no real intelligence behind it. Right now, it’s like organisations have unleashed a bunch of badly trained dogs who need experience on the job to get better.
I write a lot about email marketing and one problem out there is they aren’t smart enough. They’ll keep pushing the same product regardless of if you already bought it a few months ago.
One area I think machine learning could really help is with the personalisation of websites but I see very little evidence so far. When you arrive at a retailer’s website they are typically saying “this is what we’ve got - take it or leave it”, instead of an old-fashioned shop-keeper saying “what can I do for you today”?
So how is this changing? Where can we see ourselves ending up?
Tech is getting smarter as we feed it more and more big data. Because of this it’s much easier for marketers to harness disparate data to uncover insights, make discoveries and take action.
There’s also dedication to remapping customer journeys and understanding what people might need at different moments. We’ve allowed American tech giants to sell us plenty of stuff without paying any tax. That means anyone trying to compete with them, who has feet on the high street, must become amazing at customer service, understanding and omnichannel.
I’m about to speak to Game and they are really interested in customer experience for all these reasons. They realise they are up against these US big boys who can ship quick and run lean by paying less tax. That means places like Game must make their stores worth visiting to be in with a chance of success.
What areas do you think the instore experience can’t help?
We are polarised between buying on price and experiences where you want to get some great services and advice. If consumers are buying on price alone, it’s yet to be seen how machine learning could influence those purchases.
So what’s your advice for online retailers?
They’ve got to get back to being as easy to use as Amazon or anything else. At the moment I’d rather do anything than buy from some retailers’ websites.
Become your own customer, use your brain, check out the experience first hand. I don’t think retailer’s websites are where all the focus should be though, being able to interact with retailers where you already are will be huge. KLM will soon let people interact with them over Messenger, soon SnapChat. Half the time it won’t be a human.
According to Forrester, for every $100 spent driving traffic to an ecommerce site, only $1 is spent helping it convert. So what do you see as the relationship between acquisition and optimisation?
I’m not surprised by that stat. They should think about their site as a kind of magic shop that shapes itself around each customer. A lot of retailers still think of their website too similarly to their offline presence.
If they know I’m male, mid-forties, perhaps don’t show me ladies boots just because you are trying to flog them that week. Maybe I need some more aftershave or a new coat. Why not build the store around me?
Email will be one of the first steps towards this because they know it’s going to be me opening the mail. I suspect this is an area where machine-learning could make the biggest impact, in making stores that move around and are personalised to you instead of generic.
If anyone reading this wants to try it out -- go to Adidas and try to buy a Chelsea shirt for an 8 year old. And see how many times you have to keep refining your search before you get there. Age, gender, football team, size, season - Every variable needs consideration, it’s not smart enough yet to figure it out for you.
Machine-learning may help -- but this needs human teams to think about how.
Anything else you want to add?
Whenever people introduce a new buzzword, we’re told it’s going to solve everything. Clever people can make it sound like rocket science. But so much of it is really common sense. Tech often just enables us to do things quicker and smarter.
What people really need to do is have a clear idea of their customer journey. Without that you’re in the dark but once you've got it you can apply common sense to understand where, why and what your customers are buying.
That said if someone lands on your site through an email or a particular search term and you aren’t optimising toward that, you’re missing an enormous opportunity.
How many times do you end up on a page where things are out of stock. John Lewis is constantly trying to sell me things it’s sold out of and don’t even tell you when it’s back in stock or ask you to sign up on a waiting list. Right here, right now, common sense could be applied to solve problems like this.