09 Mar 2021 15:31 IST

Conversational commerce: Making shopping personal again

Digital retail, offering engaging deep connection with the consumer, will be the future of shopping

Growing up, one of my fondest memories was going to the local market with my dad in a small town in North-East India where we lived. We would spend time walking through an intricate maze of small shops and street vendors, stopping at various spots where everyone knew of my father, discovering what was in stock. He would examine things from all angles, quizzing sellers on their quality and where they came from. And we always walked back happy and satisfied.

A decade later, as a college student in the city of Coimbatore, my friends and I would travel to Tirupur and spend few hours every two or three months in ‘Khadarpet,’ an euphemism for the row of small shops with the latest export-surplus clothes at great prices. We would spend hours rummaging through piles of t-Shirts, trying on and getting advice from each other about what looked good and what was in-trend. We would then combine everything we had bought to negotiate a big discount.

Social, interactive, conversational

Shopping is so much more than what you buy. It's a treasure hunt to discover something new, a personalised recommendation from someone you trust. It's a negotiation to get that great deal and the time spent catching up with friends and family.

Over the last two decades, shopping, like everything else, has moved online. It's convenient — at the click of a button, it’s delivered to your doorstep. It has great prices. But it's also static and impersonal. You sit alone in front of a computer or a mobile phone scrolling through hundreds of choices identified by an algorithm, delivered by a machine. And when you have a query, you interact with another machine or a bot — rarely an actual human being.

What baffles me about this is when you speak to a successful salesperson, they will always tell you that the secret to closing a sale is the conversation. People want to buy from other people. So why do we forget the most critical ingredient when we shop online? This impersonal, faceless experience is leaving many of us less satisfied. And for the one billion consumers who are new to the internet in emerging markets, shopping online can be overwhelming. They are doubtful whether they will get what they can see and whether they can trust the seller. What if they lose the money?

The pertinent question one needs to ask is:

  • Can we create a genuine, authentic, and human conversation at scale?
  • Can we create online marketplaces that are convenient, abundant, and social?



The answer is yes. Companies in emerging markets around the world, in China, India, and South-East Asia, are doing just this, using a model called conversational commerce. Chris Messina, the brain behind the hashtag, coined the term describing it as "utilisation of AI chatbots, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) messaging or other personalised push notifications to interact with people, brands or services."

Success of conversational commerce

According to a recent eMarketer study, consumers have started using voice assistants to connect with their smartphones or other gadgets over the last year which is attributed to increased stay-at-home behaviour.

An Indian reselling app Meesho is a classic example of building a trusted and authentic relationship with a sellers online. On Meesho, you can shop over and over again, but instead of interacting with a stranger or a bot, you interact with the same person: a representative of Meesho, a real human being with whom you can interact on social media. Over time, she knows your likes, your dislikes, what you buy, and when you buy it. And so many more. It truly is a hybrid model, combining the convenience and scale of a large company with the trusted personal relationship that you would expect from the shop around the corner.

Another example is LazLive in Thailand. On LazLive, you can watch real sellers describing products to you via a live video stream. They have also developed a platform where actual sellers — real people can share information about clothes, bags, and gadgets — describing products to you and showing you from the outside and inside. You can ask them questions, get instant responses, and be much more comfortable with what you buy before you buy it. Over time, you can watch more videos from the same seller and they start to feel more like a friend than a faceless machine. They also help you understand what you're going to buy, stay abreast of the latest trends, and often discover things that you didn't even know existed.

What's important to note is that these are not stray experiments. In markets such as China, India, and South-East Asia, over 500 million consumers engage in conversational commerce, and these models are growing much faster than the traditional, more static e-commerce platforms. Conversational commerce emerged to solve the needs of first-time online shoppers and is equally compelling for more experienced shoppers. Studies show that consumers who engage in conversational commerce spend 40 per cent more with higher satisfaction and lower returns.

In the not-so-distant future, conversational commerce will become the norm, revolutionising shopping around the world, and traditional e-commerce platforms such as Flipkart and Amazon will need to adapt or risk becoming irrelevant.

For brands, this is a crucial next step and an unprecedented opportunity, moving on from mass marketing in the 20th century and analytics-based hyper-personalisation in the last two decades, to build a truly authentic and deep personal connection with their consumers. And for shoppers, it brings back the magic, making online shopping finally feel human again.