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E-Commerce Marketers: You Can Relax About AI and VR. For Now …

Dave LeDonne

This holiday season, millions of Americans will probably receive virtual reality (VR) headsets or AI-powered home assistants as gifts.

No doubt, the implications of these trends are not lost e-commerce marketers. Beyond ushering in a new world of interactivity between consumers and their devices, both technologies also seem likely to open up fresh ways for e-commerce retailers to interact with those consumers.

So is it time for marketers to move beyond merely taking notice — and make plans to jump in? It’s early, and these technologies are not quite ripe yet. However, if history is any guide, they will get there, and so deserve some attention.

In the here-and-now, this is what e-commerce marketers should know about AI assistants and VR:

Make Your Voice Heard

Google made waves earlier this month when it unveiled Google Home, its AI-powered smart assistant. The Home’s Nov. 4 release date will put it head-to-head against the popular, Alexa-powered Amazon Echo in the battle for holiday gift dollars and domination of our living rooms.

I’ve got an Amazon Echo and I love it. But the device’s functionality is still somewhat limited. And as of June of this year, roughly 4 million Echos had been sold. The proliferation of AI will no doubt accelerate this holiday season — especially with Google now in the mix — but it’s still not likely to hit critical mass just yet.

That said, the technology will only grow in adoption and utility. So how would retailers and brands get involved, if they had a mind to? The Echo’s Alexa can be equipped with “skills,” which act like apps for the device; Google Home will also support 3rd-party apps.

Several brands have already built skills for Echo:

  • Capital One allows account holders to ask Alexa for their account balances and make credit card payments on Echo
  • Uber offers a ride-hailing skill operated by a user’s voice
  • Domino’s has taken laziness to another level with its skill that lets hungry couch potatoes order a pizza without getting up

Pretty cool stuff, but because we’re still in the early innings of this technology, e-commerce marketers won’t be missing many (or any) sales by not building similar Alexa offerings at this stage. It’s mostly a novelty.  

At this point in the game, it’s best to think of wading into the AI assistant waters as extra, extra credit. But if you can provide real value, then you’ll be able to capitalize on an uncrowded playing field.

The flipside of this is that for marketers who want to explore the technology now, there is certainly a chance to be opportunistic. You can try new things, and potentially reach fresh audiences, who are likely hungry for ways to use their shiny new devices.

For example, a sunglasses retailer could create a skill or Home app that recites that day’s UV index based on the user’s location. Or an apparel retailer could create a skill that suggests types of outfits for a user based on his or her preferences and local weather. And because consumer expectations of AI applications are still low, you can further your brand image with little to no downside.

At this point in the game, it’s best to think of wading into the AI assistant waters as extra, extra credit. But if you can provide real value, then you’ll be able to capitalize on an uncrowded playing field.

Virtually Ready?

Electronics retailers are betting big on virtual reality technology to power sales during the 2017 holiday season. And analysts project that the VR market could be worth $50 billion by 2021. With all the excitement for VR, is this year to begin prepping for virtual reality e-commerce experiences?

Not so fast. Remember: This current crop of VR only works with PC, mobile, and console gaming, and there’s presently no way to expose gamers to your products while they’re slaying virtual dragons or conquering virtual planets. And even if you could, you would be competing with the wizardry of thousands of dedicated game developers to really captivate audiences.

So for retail marketers, unless you’re in the business of selling VR headsets, you don’t need to worry. We’re a long way from a world in which a majority — or even a plurality — of web users are strapping on VR goggles just to browse the web.

Augmented reality (AR) — VR’s less-immersive sibling — will likely provide the most utility for retail marketers aiming to use these nascent technologies to propel sales. There are plenty examples of retailers using AR technologies to give their shoppers a better idea of what they’re purchasing online, building virtual fitting rooms or letting shoppers see how products actually will look in their homes.  

We’re a long way from a world in which a majority — or even a plurality — of web users are strapping on VR goggles just to browse the web.

These are incredible examples of imagination, ingenuity, and the possibilities that this new type of technology will enable. And if you are compelled to make the e-commerce world a little more lively with a new type of AR shopping experience, by all means go ahead.

However, don’t believe that not having an interactive fitting room on your site will set you back at this stage in the game. The time will certainly come when shoppers begin to say to themselves, “I just can’t buy from a retailer that doesn’t let me visualize how its wares will look on my body or in my home.” But we haven’t reached that point yet.

To be sure, AI and virtual reality will only become more important in the future. And there will come a time when e-commerce retailers are selling their products through voice commands or fully virtual storefronts. For retailers that pride themselves on being cutting edge, it could make sense to use these early days as a chance to experiment before the stakes are much higher.

For now, though, e-commerce marketers can take a deep breath and allow both technologies to mature a bit before they need to join in. It’s still important — and lots of fun — to look ahead, and you can see a few other ways retailers might be selling products in the future in this blog post.

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