1-800-Flowers CEO Chris McCann At NRF: Voice Is The UI Of The Future

There is a “fifth way of change” in technology that is transforming retail discovery and shopping, Chris McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers, told the audience at the NRF Big Show this week.

The change he referred to is the role of Connected Intelligence and voice activation and digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Okay Google in spurring what he calls “conversational marketing,” And for 1-800-Flowers, it represents coming full circle.

In terms of outlining the path to voice search and conversational marketing, McCann pointed to three periods that have spanned 1-800-Flowers’ retail existence since it opened its first outlet in 1976: first there was the retail store, followed by the use of telephone delivery to bypass walking into a brick-and-mortar location.

The third wave was the web, and McCann touted 1-800-Flowers as opening one of the first e-commerce features on AOL in the 1990s.

The fourth wave of retail change is represented by the impact of mobile and social media and 1-800-Flowers reacted to that by being one of the first brands to launch artificial intelligence-powered bots on Facebook Messenger that allowed customers to transact through that heavily mobile social channel.

“As we all know, the customer is always in charge,” McCann said from the podium. “And it’s the customers who are leading us into these new technologies. It’s not us looking at the technology and saying, ‘We need to get involved in it.’”

1-800-Flowers’ AI-powered concierge.

Retail Tech’s Tipping Point

1-800-Flowers could also lay claim to be one of the first store brands to launch a voice-based application on Amazon’s Alexa platform. The idea was to get involved early and learn right along with its customers, McCann said, noting that company was fortunate that Amazon chose to feature 1-800-Flowers in one of its commercials promoting the Echo and Alexa.

“I think we’re at a tipping point, as technology companies like IBM, Google, Apple, and others that are developing these capabilities at ground breaking speeds,” McCann said. “And so it’s wise, based on the culture of our company. Why, back in 2016, we saw this world emerging and though it’s time to get involved as early as we possibly can.

“When we launched our bot, we were one of the first companies who were launching fully transactional bots in Facebook Messenger platform,” he said. “And why did we do that? Because they have over a billion active Messenger users. That’s where the consumer is choosing to spend time. They’re not necessarily coming to our website. They want to transact with us in Messenger. And we were fortunate that Mark Zuckerberg featured us in his F8 Conference that year, when they really announced Facebook’s personalized time bots.”

Two weeks after that, 1-800-Flowers debuted its own AI-powered concierge built on IBM’s Watson capabilities called “GWYN” (“Great acronym,” McCann said, saying it stands for “Gifts When You Need.”) Alexa is there to help with the top of the customer experience, such as helping to choosing the right product, for the right customer, for the right occasion, for the right time.”

Speeding Tickets Are Better Than Parking Tickets

In explaining 1-800-Flowers’ approach and philosophy about new technologies, McCann emphasized that mistakes do happen, but that it’s better to fail fast rather than move cautiously, since other brands will surpass you.

“We’re feeling the pressure to go even faster and faster, because I think mass adoption of these conversational commerce technologies is happening at a speed much faster than anything else we saw,” he said. “We think that mass adoption of these capabilities is happening in a span of about 18 months, so to stay in sync with our consumers we urge the people in our company, all of our team members, to get speeding tickets, not parking tickets.”

And so, with voice activation, 1-800-Flowers is back to where it started with taking telephone orders. “It all comes back to voice.”

“Our company a couple of years from now will look radically different than it does today, on how we interact and how we engage with our customers,” McCann said. “We’re leveraging AI technologies to deliver more personalized customer experience.

“We’re continuing to move the needle forward there. Voice is the UI of the future. You see studies now that show that Google’s voice recognition is at 95 percent or better on a better recognition rate. And with those technologies behind our marketing, we believe we’re in the midst of another transformation of our company.”

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How Local Businesses Can Take Advantage Of Their ‘Frenemy’ Relationship With Amazon

As large and small retailers head to the NRF’s Big Show this weekend, the question of Amazon as a friend/enemy or “frenemy” will hang over most of the discussions as the industry seeks to find a way to adjust to the e-tailer’s hegemony and influence with consumers.

Earlier this week, Amazon touted the benefits to SMBs during 2017. Among the highlights Amazon pointed to was that more than 300,000 U.S.-based small and medium-sized businesses joined the Amazon Marketplace.

The company also said that more than 140,000 SMBs selling on Amazon surpassed $100,000 in annual sales, while Amazon Lending surpassed $3 billion lent to small businesses on Amazon since the program started in 2011.

“More and more small and medium-sized businesses are choosing to join the Amazon Marketplace and sell right alongside Amazon to reach customers around the world. Entrepreneurs and small business owners are succeeding on Amazon – they sell half the products that Amazon customers buy, and more than 140,000 small and medium-sized businesses surpassed $100,000 in sales on Amazon in 2017,” said Peter Faricy, VP for Amazon Marketplace. “These businesses are reinvesting in their local communities – creating jobs and supporting local suppliers. We are proud of how the Amazon Marketplace helps empower so many small businesses, not just in the US, but around the world.”

Amazon’s Gravitational Force On Retail

The growth of e-commerce and the decline of store sales has largely been blamed on the gravitational pull Amazon exerts on the space.

And stats cited by  Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of marketing consultancy BuyerLegends and co-author of  Be Like Amazon: Even A Lemonade Stand Can Do It, would seem to suggest that this is not a case of mass paranoia: Amazon captured 89 percent of all online holiday spending in the five-week period beginning on Thanksgiving, according to an analysis of credit- and debit-card transaction data by Earnest Research in New York.

In comparison, Walmart, which purchased Jet .com in 2016 for $3 billion, remained a distant second a 4.4 percent, Eisenberg notes.

Amazon has continued to move aggressively in expanding its promise of near-immediate delivery and physical pick-up options for its online shoppers by rapidly opening up fulfillment centers in major cities. But as Eisenberg suggests, there is a lot that local businesses can do to take advantage of Amazon rather than be crushed by it.

The Instant Pot Model

The first thing retailers need to do is come to terms with the fact that Amazon is determined to reach every city, town, and block with ease over the next few years.

“You can’t even say ‘Amazon dominates,’ because it’s beyond that when it comes to retail and retail search,” Eisenberg says. “When someone wants a product, they’re going to Amazon. It’s their choice to be there or not. I think retailers have to be there. Yes, you can keep them as a ‘frenemy.’ But keep in mind two things.”

The first is that when brands are exceptional, and they behave like Amazon, they can grow massively without having to compete with the e-tail giant.

One example Eisenberg offers is the phenomenal success of the Instant Pot.

While Amazon has been adding its own versions of many products sold on its platform, it isn’t going to compete with Instant Pot for two reasons, says Eisenberg: Instant Pot is priced fairly and has built a cult-like community around it. The latter is something Amazon would not be inclined or able to do.

As a result of all those factors, Instant Pot thrives in Amazon’s world.

Another example Eisenberg points to is Anker, which makes cell phone accessories, which has similarly built its brand through Amazon despite facing  white labeled items sold under Amazon’s banner. Amazon doesn’t slight or mind Anker because it adheres to what Eisenberg says is Amazon’s “four pillars”:

“They take care of their customers, they get the products to them quickly, they’re constantly innovating and creating new products, they price their products fairly, and they sell well,” Eisenberg says. “So if you live by Amazon’s rules, they leave you alone. But if you’re an Energizer or a Duracell that have gauged consumers on batteries, Amazon will create a private-label knock-off and price it to allow it to take over that market.”

The Amazon Advantage

That product proposition can also be applied to local stores, Eisenberg adds, though many of the benefits are still a few years off.

“The advantage to local businesses is – and I don’t think you’re going to see that today — that you will be able to get global reach,” Eisenberg says. “Amazon has out-Googled Google by becoming a better product search engine. They’re also potentially be competitive in retail services such as plumbers and contractors.”

That’s a space that Google, Yelp, and Facebook have been aiming to capture as well. And that competition from Amazon will give those local businesses a good deal of leverage, especially as the marketing battle among voice-activated assistants heats.

“We know that Amazon is betting the farm on Alexa and implanting that beyond Echo devices,” Eisenberg notes. “Alexa will be more deeply embedded on other people’s phones, it will be on watches and wearables, it will be on refrigerators, and most importantly, it will be in cars. It will have an important place in self-driving cars at some point.”

In the not-too-distant future scenario Eisenberg paints, a consumer will be traveling in their autonomous vehicle and decide they need a shirt for a conference they’re attending next week. They’ll tell Alexa to find it. Considering that Alexa knows the person’s size, where you like to shop, and has their payment info, the voice activated assistant will have the details in seconds. After scanning listings near the route, Alexa will ask if it should navigate to a selected store.

The store will get the sale and Amazon will be able to take a piece of that advertising business, while taking another piece through its payment system. And because Amazon can’t do everything itself, it will be a win-win for retailers, Eisenberg says.

“There are more things that Amazon can offer in terms of services that can’t fit into a warehouse or fulfillment center,” he says. “It’s also more cost efficient to rely on a retailer than on its fulfillment center.”

Eisenberg’s view is already borne out by at least two local retailers that shared their stories with Amazon.

“Since selling on Amazon, we’ve been able to grow our business from three to 40 employees, right here in Delray Beach, Florida,” said Michael Dudley, managing director of Salon’s Choice. “We recently launched on Amazon in the U.K., and are now shipping thousands of orders a day through Fulfillment by Amazon to customers around the world.”

“We launched on Amazon two years ago and are now operating in more than seven countries around the world,” said Phil Williams, CEO and founder of Coffee Gator. “2017 was our biggest year on Amazon, with sales growing by more than 100 percent year-over-year, and we expect 2018 to be even bigger.”

Nevertheless, for those retailers who plan to take their chances in terms of opposing Amazon’s local incursions, Euclid Analytics CEO Brent Franson presented his own battle plan that calls for updating co-op data and marketing strategies.

“Building an effective data co-op for retail is challenging – 55 percent of online shoppers start their product searches on Amazon, says BloomReach – but ultimately worth the battle,” Franson wrote on GeoMarketing this week. “More choice will force the industry’s three major players – Amazon, Facebook, and Google – to improve what they offer to marketers. If the competition is better, then the Big Three runs the very real risk of significant losses. Either way, the consumers – in this case, the marketers – win.

“The right co-op structure will yield better personalization based on actual customer needs and intent. It will earn customer trust by balancing privacy concerns with personalization; for example, the co-op should outline clear rules that ensure obfuscation of certain kinds of data (e.g. PII) before sharing with the pool. Finally, it will prioritize optimized marketing for long-term value. This is about building long-term relationships that reward both the retailer and the consumer; it’s not merely about immediate conversions. Each member of the cooperative should believe in, and be working toward, that goal.”

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How Online Store Locators Focus Guess’ Real-Time Marketing

When Edward Park took on the job of synthesizing fashion retailer Guess Inc.’s online and offline North America marketing two years ago, he decided that finding a way to streamline communication from the continental to local level required a balancing act.

Park needed to bring Guess’ wholesale, e-commerce, and brick-and-mortar divisions, which had been conducting themselves fairly independently, in line together. And the foundation would be recognizing the individual market needs for Guess’ roughly 400-plus North American stores.

It began partnering with retail technology platform Radius8 to tie local marketing conditions that could impact sales — everything from the weather to popular events — to center its digital advertising, promotions, and email marketing efforts.

Understanding Local Is The Foundation

“Radius8 pitched its concept in terms of ‘shop local,’  and taking a traditional store locator into giving the visibility to our customers in terms of a full assortment of our inventory and driving traffic to stores,” says Park, who was named SVP of Retail and Digital ad Guess after five years at women’s apparel retailer Zara’s parent company Inditex Group in China.

“I was coming from Asia, so to me, anything to do with omnichannel, online to offline, mobile, was all seamless,” Park adds. “You know, people here looked at me as a crazy guy when I came and said, ‘We have to put all our efforts as mobile-first.’ I can say many great things about Guess in terms of its great 36-year history and the great brand identity it has created. But I’ve always to our Guess Digital team as a startup, which is one of the reasons we have to be nimble. We have to be quick.”

Radius8’s Smartbar — powered by Yext’s store locator — in action for Guess.

By using Radius8’s tools like Smartbars, an analytics program that can highlight what’s happening around a store location (weather, events, Twitter trends) and combine it with what an area’s consumers are browsing for online, Guess stores were able to get quick info along with the ability to understand longer term hyperlocal shopping patterns.

“A store manager at the Guess store on 5th Avenue can use our analytics to see what people are and buying and looking at online and then adjust what’s shown to consumers in the store locator Smartbar,” says Harlan Eplan, SVP for business development at Radius8. “It’s interesting to them to know that a red sweater is selling really well on line or people are clicking on it locally, maybe I need to pull that to the front of the store. Or,  perhaps they need to order more if they don’t have it in stock. It all reflects the greater interest from retailers to match up what’s happening online to what is going on in merchandising and how we’re showcasing a product in the stores.”

Expanding The Digital Storefront

In June, Radius8 began working with place-based knowledge management provider Yext [Full disclosure: Yext is GeoMarketing‘s parent company. More details on that relationship here] to expand the store locator information that Yext powers to Facebook pages and other places where consumers might encounter a brand’s messaging.

That partnership brings together another program Park implemented when he arrived at Guess two years ago, as one of his first initiatives included tapping Yext to power the brand’s store locator. By combining its info with Radius8’s ability to get an overview of what’s happening around store locations, Guess is able to get a better sense of when and where to target and tailor its marketing, Park says.

“Much like our peers, omnichannel enablement has been a big part of our work – with the goal of streamlining the ability to buy and improve operational efficiencies,” Park says. “This is a lot of work and a must have for any retailers today. Radius8 is supportive of this – by giving us a digital storefront – allowing customers to browse the true inventory.”

Jennifer Lopez is the face of Guess’ spring 2018 collection.

In addition, this drives much-needed store traffic and gives Guess a chance to upsell and cross-sell when a consumer is in the store. Before Radius8, a customer would never know what was in the store short of going there in person or calling, Park notes.

“Our goal is to expose our local products based on intelligence data of what is happening in and around that particular local market,” says Park. “Customers who come into the store buy more than those online.”

So with Radius8’s ability leverage local context, content, and trends to engage the customer online and on mobile based on what is happening in the market allows Guess to improve the performance of its Yext pages, Park says.

“Customers going to store pages have local intent, so we are bubbling up local trending product,” he says. “The Smartbars have a high click through and engagement and are driving our online conversion rate with local data.”

These behind the scenes marketing moves are also meant to support Guess’ new creative push. Last month, the retailer unveiled its latest promotion by Guess co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Paul Marciano featuring actress and pop star Jennifer Lopez as the “face” of its Spring 2018 collection. In the meantime, Park is also looking to find ways of using additional technologies, such as voice-activation, to further connect with consumers online and offline.

“Part of our goals of working with Radius8 is to create a centralized source of truth for local data and context in and around the store that can be easily leveraged and put to work to drive customer engagement,” Park says. “The great part of this is that working with Radius8, we can easily connect local with any emerging channel or shopping paradigm that is relevant to our consumer. Whether that is Voice Activation (Alexa/Google/Siri), Augmented Reality, or any other emerging tech, I’m confident Radius8 will be able to help us monetize that with contextual local data.”

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Button’s Mike Jaconi On How Buzzfeed And Walmart Are Demonstrating The Complement Of Content And Commerce

Social news site Buzzfeed is expanding its existing content alliance with Walmart and the retailer’s e-commerce platform, Jet.com, via the Button Marketplace, an app engagement and partnership platform that connects mobile content and commerce brands.

The expansion involves Buzzfeed Tasty, the publisher’s food and recipes video portal, which the Button bills as a “blending of content and commerce.”

“This partnership represents a natural combination of the two on mobile in a way that is exciting for customers, serving yet another way Tasty, Walmart and Jet are evolving the shopping experience to meet customers where they are — no matter when or how they want to shop,” Button’s Natalie Gerke writes in a blog post. “With Button’s technology and expertise in app-to-app partnerships, Tasty is able to drive users directly into the respective Walmart.com and Jet.com apps to complete their transaction, known to be the highest-converting channel within today’s digital retail industry (apps performing 4x better than mobile web).”

Here’s where Button’s Marketplace comes in. The platform provides the connective tissue between complementary mobile apps and websites — such as Buzzfeed and Tasty — to promote loyalty and payment when its users seek to buy something related from a Walmart or Jet.com.

Just by way of explanation of how other ways Button creates complements between commerce and content, last May, The Weather Channel app began featuring Button Marketplace apps from Uber, Groupon, delivery.com, Caviar, and Resy.

As a result, its users would be able to hail a ride, sign up for a deal, get a food delivery, or make a reservation without leaving The Weather Channel to connect with those functions. In addition to maintaining engagement, The Weather Channel could potentially drive revenue through affiliate deals to promote those separate app functions.

As Walmart seeks to combat rival Amazon to be the primary online and offline shopping center for consumers, the extension to other apps within its own mobile base could help it prove its own greater convenience to consumers.

Michael Jaconi, founder and CEO of Button, offered his take on the intersection of commerce and content and how apps can make those connections more seamless, particularly for brick-and-mortar brands trying to enhance their omnichannel strategies.

GeoMarketing: How has the nature or state of app engagement changed since Button launched over three years ago?

Mike Jaconi: The phrase coined years ago by Apple – ‘there’s an app for that’ – still rings true today. Since starting Button in 2014, apps and consumer engagement with them has grown significantly. In fact, as Button’s recent report we released with App Annie shows – 2017 Index: The Mobile Consumer – consumers prefer apps for their convenience, whether it’s saved personal and payment credentials or because they’re easier to navigate. The growth is apparent, as the App Store and Google Play now feature a combined 5.9 million apps, and smartphone sales are expected to hit more than $330 billion by 2021, three times the forecasted $102 billion this year. For any retailer or service provider looking to acquire new users, apps will be imperative to their success when it comes to a mobile strategy.

How has Button itself evolved over the past year?

Over the past year, our growth has skyrocketed and our product has evolved to make it even easier for Publishers and Merchants to partner in mobile. We’ve welcomed a range of new partners across a variety of industries including Walmart, Buzzfeed, Target, Walgreens, The Weather Channel, and many others. The platform is now driving hundreds of millions in spending annually, and retailers of all types are coming onto the platform to diversify their mobile marketing budgets. Button is the most cost-effective acquisition channel our partners have in mobile – and with the duopoly of Google and Facebook only growing more powerful – Button is becoming an even more vital ingredient in retailers’ growth strategies.

Looking at brick-and-mortar perspective, how necessary is for stores to have an app? Is it all about promoting loyalty? Or are there other aspects stores should consider?

Mobile commerce is continuing to grow faster than any other channel of spend. Amazon, the guiding light in retail, saw more than a 50 percent YOY increase in sales on the Amazon app this past holiday season.

For brands to succeed with their most loyal audiences, they need an app to serve these consumers — and an acquisition strategy to make it succeed. With apps being retailers’ highest-converting channel, this is an essential pillar of retailers’ growth strategies in this era. Brands must also remember that apps aren’t using mobile to strictly make purchases, but also to price compare while in-store, access savings on the go, and research items they’re interested in when they don’t have time to shop. Retailers that don’t have a comprehensive mobile acquisition strategy will lose out on these valuable “moments of intent” that so frequently pop up in mobile.

Sticking with brick-and-mortars, how well are they using third parties such as Google Maps, Foursquare, Uber, OpenTable?

Creating the connective layer between digital and physical is a strategy we’ve worked to create since day one of Button. When it comes to finding a place to eat, consumers look at reviews on an app like Foursquare to find the best around them.

By creating that seamless connection between inspiration and the ultimate action, we’re making it simpler for consumers to get to the places they want. We’re also helping to make the apps themselves more useful — they go from being a place to get information to a place where you can take an action! Google Maps has also made a similar connection for consumers with the integration of Uber and Lyft.

Retail is following the natural extensions listed above, and I expect the next three years to show more progress than the past 20 when it comes to connecting online behavior to offline retail spending.

How does Button view the rise of voice-activated digital assistants like Alexa, Okay Google/Google Assistant/Google Home, Siri, Cortana, Samsung’s Bixby?

These new digital assistants are here to stay.  I’m still torn on whether commerce at scale will be possible through them without a view layer – and Amazon’s Echo Show is likely the result of Amazon coming to a similar conclusion. That said, whether a voice prompt or the “tap of a button” – the uniqueness of Button’s platform – the index of matching “actions”, “products”, and “places” will make the voice revolution an exciting part of the Button story. More to come on that in 2018.

Looking to the end of the year, what is Button focused on as it looks to position itself for 2018?

2017 was an exciting year for Button’s Marketplace, which grew with many of the world’s leading and most innovative brands turning to Button to power their mobile partnership strategy.

When companies like Walmart, Uber, eBay, The Weather Channel, Buzzfeed, and many more select Button as their partnership platform, it inspires other brands to follow suit. Our integration roadmap is full with many more leading retailers, and the publishers they’re bringing to work with us represent new verticals and new models we have never worked with before.

This was always our dream – to fix a bunch partnerships that we knew we could fix with better technology built for mobile and with the user in mind, and secondly to build the platform that the business models of the future could be built upon. That’s what’s coming – and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

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How Lululemon Is Able To Avoid The ‘Athleisure Slowdown’

Amid a slowdown in sales at athletic apparel, Lululemon appears to be standing out, as the Vancouver-based retailer’s earnings beat Wall St. analysts’ expectations with sales rising a healthy 8 percent over Q3 2016.

The brand’s positive news stands in contrast to its “athleisure” peers: As Bloomberg’s Sarah Halzack notes, “Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. is cranking up the discounts to lure shoppers back to its struggling stores. Nike Inc. is scrambling to offer more innovative products and reduce its dependence on “mediocre” retailers. The stock prices of Under Armour Inc., Foot Locker Inc., and Finish Line Inc. have been slammed this year, each tumbling precipitously in response to disappointing sales.”

In eMarketer’s view, “the question isn’t really about whether the athleisure trend is over. Rather, it’s about which retailers are speaking to customers in the right way, not just in terms of products.

“The retail landscape is experiencing unprecedented disruption characterized by increasingly commoditized transaction and short-term focus,” Lululemon CEO Laurent Potdevin said in a during the analyst call on Wednesday. “Across the globe there was a [consumer] behavioral shift to leave an active mindful lifestyle. Guests are drawn toward the brand focus that reflects who they are and who they want to be.”

Hyperlocal Brand Ambassadors

While marketing budgets in the athleisure space remain relatively high, according to Bloomberg, with spending generally 10-12 percent of sales, Lululemon appears to be doing something different than its competitors: it relies heavily on local yoga instructors and athletic trainers to serve as brand ambassadors.

“As more retailers seek to feature experiences in the store to engage shoppers, Lululemon—a pioneer of free, in-store yoga classes and a brand ambassadors model that has been replicated by other athletic fashion retailers—has continued to attract consumers through new variations and localized experiences, one example being its ‘Mindfulosophy’ meditation space in its New York flagship location,” eMarketer concludes.

In addition, Lululemon has also made sure to strike a careful balance between its 345 brick-and-mortar locations and its e-commerce sales.

During the company’s Q3 earnings call this past week, Lululemon CFO Stuart Haselden said the brand would introduce a “buy online/pick up in-store” option next year.

“We’re thrilled that we’ve seen on other omnichannel initiatives, ship from store has been very successful,” Haselden. “Our business model continues to become more and more omnichannel. Our stores and digital business has become more and more every day. So we’re excited that we’re able to recognize demand in one channel and somewhat in another in a more and more seamless manner as we develop these capabilities.”

“What I guess the most excited about is how first of all agile our stores are in terms of really been able to adapt and to be able to integrate omni into everything they do,” Celeste Burgoyne, Lululemon’s VP, Retail, Americas, added. “The way I really look at is, obviously, omni and digital go hand in hand with stores and its becoming more of a way as we operate and every touch point is really touch point that we own and we’re leveraging those channels for what their best able to delivery for us. As we look at our store portfolio rollout, as well as our digital business we see kind of all those rise and our ability to be easy channel strategically allows for that.”

 

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How Mall of America Is Using Chatbots And Robots To Connect With Holiday Shoppers

Mall of America has expanded its use of location-based chatbots by adding Softbank’s robot, Pepper, to engage with consumers and provide faster customer service to busy shoppers this holiday season.

The chatbot will live on MoA’s website, its mobile app, and Facebook page, and as an Amazon Alexa skill.  While MoA made use of chatbots last holiday season, that program only connected to its Facebook Messenger presence.

By making this expansion, which includes using chatbots, which were developed by tech partner Satisfi Labs, to power the “humanoid” robot Pepper, MoA is recognizing the mainstreaming of Connected Intelligence and artificial intelligence as a foundation for one-to-one marketing and omnichannel strategies.

A Retail First For Chatbots

MoA claims that the chatbot is the first of its kind for shopping malls. It is Satisfi Lab’s first fully-integrated retail location bot that uses multiple data feeds, over different customer touch-points, to answer customer’s questions in natural language, within seconds in real time.

For example, the bot can answer complex questions around gifting, food recommendations, and attractions and holiday events happening in America’s largest mall, based on a user’s specific location, says Sarah Townes, MoA’s VP of Marketing.

“This expands how we used chatbots last year. We developed more of a seasonal chatbot that provided holiday gift recommendations, holiday itineraries, depending on the type of visit that you were planning to make here, or whether you were a local Mall of America patron, or even someone coming from an international market,” Townes tells GeoMarketing.

“This chatbot is loaded with much more evergreen content that is timely. It actually is connected to a number of APIs that we’ve recently created around events, tenants, and deals,” Townes adds. “It can answer more real time questions, or specific questions relevant to a day or week events or things that are happening at the mall. Last year’s chatbot was very specific to Facebook Messenger. This one is going to be rolling out across our digital ecosystem very soon. It will be available on our website, our app, and then through Pepper as well.”

Black Friday at the Mall of America.

Adding More Pepper

Softbank’s Pepper has been a popular marketing tool for brands seeking to showcase their own AI expansion over the past two years. As we reported in May 2016, Pizza Hut Asia became be the first commerce partner to test Pepper, which is aimed at bringing greater intelligence to machines in order to create a more seamless and intuitive user experience in stores.

“For the most part, Pepper will be answering general questions about the mall, holiday hours, how to get to a specific location, maybe what events are happening at Mall of America during the holiday season,” Townes says. “In addition, she’s able to answer some specific questions about her, how tall she is, where is she manufactured, does she have human feelings, so she has some fun intelligence that is built into her as well.”

The MoA has also added some content on Pepper. There’s a “tell me a story” feature, which identifies specific holiday gifts from across MoA’s 520 retail tenants by category and is aligned with the mall’s online gift guide.

There will be three “Peppers” strategically places around the 5.6 million square foot mall, Townes says.

“The Peppers are placed depending on what events we have happening on a daily basis,” Townes says. “In general, she has spent most of her time around Santa, around some of our mall entrances, around a central parkway or thoroughfare in the mall where she can interact with as many guests as possible.

“For the most part, we do try to deploy the Peppers around the same area all 3 at once, versus having them all over the mall, simply because when she’s out and about, people cannot get enough of her,” Townes continues. “We want to make sure that people aren’t having to wait in line and they can have a nice interaction with her. By having three not lined up one after another, but in the same general vicinity, helps sort of mitigate any of the crowding, or challenges in the experience.”

Softbank’s Pepper

Finding MoA’s Voice Strategy

Pepper and the chatbot program will be at the MoA through its Super Bowl LII promotions. As Townes notes, even after the holiday season promotion, the effort will influence its broader focus on developing its voice-activation strategy via Amazon’s Alexa and other virtual assistants.

As a representative from Softbank notes, it’s all about meeting consumers’ demand for greater personalization.

“Shoppers will now have MoA on any platform they interact with the most, no matter where they are,” Softbank’s rep says. “At home, they can ask Alexa about their upcoming visit, or talk to the bot on the website and Facebook Messenger. If they are already at the mall, shoppers can easily download the enhanced MoA app that can direct customers to the thousands of destinations at the mall based on their current location.

“Every platform delivers the same quality bot experience and knowledge,” the rep adds. “The primary purpose of the bot is to simplify the process of looking through the myriad of options at the mall for the user. To avoid overwhelming the user, the bot provides a personalized shopping experience, but it can still connect shoppers with human concierges thereby augmenting the entire customer service department. This bot program together with the presence of Pepper at the mall definitely positions MoA as an innovation hub of new ideas in retail.”

Rounding out MoA’s voice and chatbot focus its new wayfinding tools within its app, which were launched in October.

“We have a new wayfinding feature in our app that offers guests a turn-by-turn experience,” Townes says. “We have provided even more parking and transportation solutions. We’ve recently started testing a parking by reservation service called My Park, which is an app enabled parking by reservation organization. Once you’re here, you’re able to download the app or use your app to help guide your experience. The goal of all of these new tools is designed simply to make it easier and more pleasurable to come to the Mall of America.”

Meanwhile, Softbank believes that MoA’s use of chatbots and Connected Intelligence will spur other retailers and malls to tap into those technologies as well.

“MoA’s push for a more customer-facing AI definitely paves the way for other malls to use these tools in their guest service and marketing strategies. By creating a useful, fun and easy to use bot program, MoA and Satisfi Labs have allowed other malls to see that quality service can scale no matter how large your property or customer base is,” Softbank’s rep tells GeoMarketing. “Additionally, having more users interact with new technology such as the bot and Pepper allow for more improvements of the tech and greater adoption across industry.”

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How Marketers Can Use Location Data To Find Brand Affinities Among Holiday Shoppers

With everything from voice search to omnichannel ad targeting changing the way brands attract holiday shoppers, the use of location data to make the connection between brick-and-mortars and consumers.

But figuring out the best ways to use location data remains an issue. While retailers pay attention to online browsing patterns, consumers still make the majority of purchases in stores, and how they move in the physical world influences their path to purchase, notes Ocean Fine, VP, Agency and Strategic Accounts at geo-data specialist Factual.

One of the things that location data does best is find the unusual shopping patterns of mobile consumers so that brands can anticipate who, when, and where shoppers might be more receptive to a geo-targeted ad.

Among the things Factual found at the start of the holiday shopping season:

  • 3.6 percent of Target customers visit a Starbucks before, while 6.3 percent visit a fast food restaurant
  • 4.6 percent of Walmart customers visit a gas station, while 4 percent visit a Walgreens
  • 9.9 percent of Macy’s customers visit a clothing and accessories retailer

“This kind of data could help retailers understand where they should focus ad dollars — Walmart could advertise deals at gas stations, or Target could partner with fast food restaurants,” Fine says.

GeoMarketing: Does Factual’s data have anything to say about the state of retail at the start of the holiday season? Was this a strong opening for retail? Or too soon to tell?

Ocean Fine: Per Adobe, Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2017 were among the highest sales days of all time – definitely a strong opening for retail! What remains to be seen is how sales will hold up throughout the season and, most importantly for brand marketers, how well their campaigns perform to drive people to purchase, both in store and online.

What does this data say about affinities between brands in terms of being able to reach a store’s likely shoppers before they’re in a retail location?

Understanding where shoppers go before and after they visit particular stores, as well as their brand affinities, helps marketers paint a more complete picture of their habits and interests, and better design advertising experiences that will elicit a positive response. Messages that are personalized and make sense in context are preferred by consumers, and a clear map of the consumer journey allows marketers to create them.

Are there any particular ways that retailers should look at location/mobile data when trying to figure out when as well as where its best to reach potential customers?

Mobile is a primary point of purchase for consumers, now more than ever. Using location-based behavior data combined with the insights derived from mobile purchase behavior, retail marketers can understand the entirety of the path to purchase, allowing them to tailor relevant content and achieve the marketing trifecta, targeting the right consumer, with the right message, at the right place. Marketers are able to see patterns in their consumers’ place visits over time, make inferences about their interests and build custom audience segments to ensure they’re reaching those who are interested.

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What Do Brick-And-Mortar Stores Face From Digital’s Role In Black Friday And Cyber Monday Shopping?

While Cyber Monday is still a bit too early to get the full scope of consumers’ online and offline shopping activity, the initial data appears to suggest that  brick-and-mortar brands are gradually finding benefits from omnichannel strategies.

“Shoppers no longer need to beat a path to stores on Black Friday,” notes Rick Kenney, head of Consumer Insights at Salesforce Commerce Cloud, in a blog post. “With an astounding 24 percent digital growth on Black Friday, the tide has officially shifted online as consumers are unshackled from the doorbuster sales of year’s past, and are free to shop on their own terms.

“What’s defining this holiday shopping season? Mobile, personalization and tremendous overall digital growth,” adds Salesforce’s Kenny. “In fact, Black Friday will retain its crown as the biggest digital shopping day of the season.”

For one thing, retailers’ embrace of personalization is having an impact on brick-and-mortars, even now, says Kenny, who states that even though just 6 percent of shoppers engage with product recommendations, those shoppers account for 30 percent of all revenue.

Preliminary numbers from other analysts bear that out.

For the second year in a row, analyst firm ShopperTrak says that Black Friday (i.e., 11/24/17 12 AM – 11:59 PM) brick-and-mortar retail traffic has held steady YOY, as ShopperTrak data shows a less than 1 percent decrease in YOY Black Friday shopper traffic numbers. That’s fairly similar to 2016’s YOY Black Friday results, as ShopperTrak data showed that Black Friday 2016 visits remained “flat” with “no statistically relevant increase or decrease in traffic levels, when compared to 2015.”

Black Friday Planning And Beyond

While it’s obvious that online shopping still has plenty of room to grow, even during the holiday season, all signs show how that purchase activity is accelerating.

What’s less clear: to what extent regular omnichannel shopping played in Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend purchases as brands look beyond Cyber Monday deals. That said, a National Retail Federation survey offered some insights as to how the balance between digital and physical would take shape at the start of the holiday shopping period.

In general, the survey indicated that 69 percent of Americans — an estimated 164 million people — planned to shop during Thanksgiving weekend.

Of those considering shopping the long holiday weekend, the survey found that 20 percent plan to shop on Thanksgiving Day (32 million) but Black Friday will remain the busiest day with 70 percent planning to shop then (115 million). A substantial 43 percent are expected to shop on Saturday (71 million), with 76 percent saying they will do so specifically to support Small Business Saturday. On Sunday, 21 percent expect to shop (35 million) and 48 percent are expected to shop on Cyber Monday (78 million).

Of those shopping, 66 percent said they’re doing so to take advantage of deals and promotions retailers will offer, while 26 percent cited the tradition of shopping over Thanksgiving weekend and 23 percent said it’s something to do over the holiday weekend, the NRF said, citing its annual survey conducted by  Prosper Insights & Analytics of 7,439 consumers during October.

Another 23 percent said they would start their holiday shopping on Black Friday.

“While the utility of the weekend will continue to draw shoppers into stores and online to efficiently and inexpensively check off their lists, we’re also seeing consumers report tradition and the opportunity to partake in holiday cheer as reasons for shopping, too,” Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said. “By now, people know what sort of deals they can expect to see during the weekend and are budgeting for them accordingly, and in many cases expertly.”

“For Gen Z, the holiday shopping weekend is a can’t-miss opportunity,” Goodfellow said. “This group overwhelmingly sees in-store shopping as a valuable way to connect with others, be it friends, family or store associates at their favorite retailers.”

Real-Time Shopping Data

In its look at the SMB commerce platform Shopify’s view of activity in its network, which represents 500,000 businesses across 175 countries and is trusted by brands such as Red Bull, Nestle, Rebecca Minkoff, Kylie Cosmetics, the company’s real-time Black Friday/Cyber Monday public database has found over $320,000 sales occurring every minute.

In terms of categories, apparel is in the lead of shopper activity, with 1.4 million items bought, followed by accessories with 915k products purchased since Black Friday. Games in last place with 36,000 items bought, with food, electronics, cosmetics, shoes, and housewares ahead.

A Sunny Shopping Forecast

And after a recent spate of devastating weather events, conditions around the U.S. have been fairly favorable to brick-and-mortar retailers and their customers. Fung Global Retail Tech cited Planalytics’ analysis, which noted a lack of rain and snow across the US encouraged consumers to visit retail stores over the Thanksgiving–Black Friday period. Thanksgiving 2017 was the driest Thanksgiving since 2014 and Black Friday was the driest since 1999. The four-day Thanksgiving weekend was the driest in over 20 years.

Cold temperatures in major markets in the eastern US benefited sales of seasonal categories such as coats, scarves and gloves. Most eastern markets, including New York, Boston and Baltimore, as well as Chicago, experienced their coldest Thanksgiving since 2014, according to data from Planalytics. At the Ann Taylor store we visited, winter categories featured strongly: there were pink and plaid day coats at $125 and $130 (after 50 percent off) that combined sharp pricing with on-trend fashion for a strong value proposition.

Meanwhile, western markets saw their warmest Thanksgiving weekend in many years. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas were roughly 10-to-15 degrees warmer over the weekend than the same period last year.

“Traffic and stock levels were decent overall at the stores we visited,” said a Fung report based on analyst team visits to 33 stores in six U.S. markets from Thanksgiving evening and Black Friday.  The Fung analysts went to 18 specialty retail stores, seven department stores, six discount stores and two off-price stores, variously located in Manhattan, Southampton and Staten Island, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Paramus, New Jersey.

“Traffic and inventory levels were satisfactory overall,” Fung reported. “Among the stores we visited, Walmart, Nike and Best Buy were the biggest winners in terms of traffic on Black Friday, and they offered excellent traffic control and in-store experiences.”

A Mobile Tipping Point

Walmart, Nike and Best Buy appeared to be the biggest winners in terms of traffic on Black Friday, Fung added, noting that the stores offered excellent traffic control and in-store experiences.

“At the Walmart store we visited, yellow tape and extra staff helped guide customers at checkout,” Fung said. “Nike’s Manhattan flagship store was very crowded when we visited, and customers were concentrated in the sports jersey and running shoe areas. In-store traffic at popular teen destinations such as Forever 21, Hollister and Victoria’s Secret seemed higher than last year on Black Friday. Traffic levels at department stores we visited varied. At Saks Fifth Avenue, traffic appeared to be solid, but we saw fewer customers at Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom.”

For the most, part, the central story this shopping season is one that amplifies the broader consumer trend in using mobile to research, discover, pick-up, and send for via delivery.

According to Adobe, this holiday season is set to cross a “tipping point” in mobile usage versus PC.

“While desktop purchases still account for two-thirds of revenue, mobile is the starting point for shoppers: for the first time, consumers will visit retailer websites from mobile devices more than desktops,” Adobe’s report states.

High-growth companies see more smartphone visit and revenue growth than below-average growth companies (23 percent and 32 percent respectively), Adobe’s report adds.

Skyhook’s Black Friday foot traffic study found that Walmart, Target and Best Buy beat Macy’s, Kohl’s and Sears for volume of in-store foot traffic over Thanksgiving and Black Friday. The attached chart details what foot traffic looked like at these six retail brands on the week prior to Black Friday – and on the day itself. It also shows that peak in-store shopping took place late on Thursday afternoon and then again just past noon on Black Friday. (See image below).
Source: Skyhook

It’s a message retailers have been absorbing to a greater degree lately. An earlier NRF survey looking at consumers’ preferences found that 50 percent say that free shipping/free pick-up options are the most important factor in choosing where to shop this season — meaning that retailers must deliver the ease and affordability at checkout time that shoppers have come to expect from Amazon if they want to compete.

“It seems that retailers are striking a happy balance in determining their online and in-store strategies for shopper engagement,” says Brian Field, director of Advisory Services for ShopperTrak. “Shoppers will still flock to physical stores on Black Friday to score a good deal, or as part of their tradition, but, many consumers no longer feel compelled to shop in stores on Thanksgiving Day.”

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Can Retailers Combat ‘Webrooming’ With NinthDecimal’s Website-To-Store Attribution?

Forrester Research estimates that “webrooming — online research to in-store purchase (see showrooming on mobile) —  will hit $1.8 trillion in sales this year.

For location analytics provider NinthDecimal, webrooming represents a need for marketing solutions that help brands understand, and capitalize on, omnichannel behavior. Or, as David Staas, president of NinthDecimal, notes, brick-and-mortar brands can’t just worry about the impact of mobile commerce competition.

That’s the premise behind NinthDecimal’s expanded offline attribution platform, Location Conversion Index, which will now measure “website effectiveness” in driving digital consumers into physical stores.

The company has partnered with CRM specialist Ansira to further test this new website-to-store attribution solution. Initial findings from the first phase of the collaboration, which span Ansira clients across QSR, auto, and retail verticals, showed:

  • Mobile generated a higher incremental lift in store visits than tablet and desktop
  • Paid search traffic drove the highest website-to-store conversion rates (1.7x greater than direct site traffic)
  • Direct site traffic drove the highest lift in incremental store visits

“Website LCI’s insights highlight the importance for brands to build a successful plan in order to reach and convert omnichannel shoppers who are visiting their website,” said Jim Badum, EVP of Client Partnership at Ansira. “It is a prodigious opportunity for brands using their web presence to increase foot traffic to their physical locations.”

We checked in with NinthDecimal’s Staas on how the new feature and new alliance will help retailers close the gap between website purchases and real-work transactions.

GeoMarketing: How does the focus on “website to store” attribution differ from what NinthDecimal has done in the past?

David Staas: NinthDecimal got started using the industry’s first location signal, Wi-Fi, and then expanded into mobile as developers began creating location-based services. That expansion resulted in Location Graph, the industry’s first audience solution powered by location data. Since then, NinthDecimal has continued to build unique data services addressing some of the industry’s biggest needs: offline attribution, physical world consumer insights, household-device graph for omni-channel services, CRM activation and programmatic data.

Does it augment or supersede NinthDecimal’s existing measurement products?

NinthDecimal’s omnichannel measurement portfolio, which includes LCI, transaction data, TV tune-in and other forms of measurement, has been adopted by some of the largest agencies in the world and now has more than 250 integrated partners including the largest media companies, DSPs, and advertising networks in the industry.

As a result, NinthDecimal has become the industry standard for third-party measurement across the advertising ecosystem. Today NinthDecimal’s measurement platform helps brands measure the effect of digital advertising (both mobile and online), TV advertising across linear, addressable and OTT, as well as OOH, print and other forms of media.

Website LCI is the next innovation in our measurement portfolio, addressing the next big need for marketers – namely connecting their e-commerce and in-store assets for today’s emerging omni-channel shopper. Website LCI expands a brand’s visibility into all of its website traffic marketing strategies, such as paid and organic search. In addition, Website LCI goes beyond media and ad campaigns to provide a more comprehensive view of marketing impact across the business. It offers a new set of “always on” performance metrics and business intelligence that allows brands to close the gap between online and offline shopping behaviors with their customers.

Why is website to store important? Is it about closing a gap, or does the mobile and desktop browser risk being neglected by platform companies and brands as everyone becomes more app-focused?

Despite the massive revenue opportunity that omnichannel consumers represent, marketers haven’t had visibility into the overlap between website visits and store visitors in order to capitalize on this growing shopping behavior. And for those marketers who have made massive investments in their websites, they still struggle to connect that investment to results beyond the web. As reflected in the findings from the NinthDecimal and Ansira study, Website LCI is able to help marketers fill the “blind spot” around understanding and developing omni-channel consumers for the first time.

Is the website to store feature being offered to clients across the board, or only as a requested-basis?

Website LCI is an always-on measurement product being offered to new and existing clients. Through NinthDecimal’s LCI Dashboard, subscribers can create an ongoing analysis of performance, quarterly foot traffic lift reports, visitation trends, and audience insights. This is all supported by a dedicated account management team to handle everything from implementation to analysis and recommendations. In addition, NinthDecimal will curate these online and offline customer audiences for brand activation and follow on engagement.

Can we mention any advertisers specifically who have tested the website to store function?

The findings from the NinthDecimal and Ansira joint study are based on actual implementations of Website LCI for major QSR, auto, and retail brands. With this type of marketing insights these brands have been able to uncover important trends related to their website traffic. For example, mobile generated a higher incremental lift in store visits than tablet and desktop while paid search traffic drove the highest website-to-store conversion rates. With this type of insights, each of the brands included in the study have been able to measure how effective they are at closing the gap between offline and online shopping behaviors.

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Millennials Aren’t Giving Up On Stores — They Just Want An Enhanced Shopping Experience

Millennials haven’t abandoned in-store shopping — but 71 percent of them believe a significantly enhanced retail experience would increase their in-store visits and purchases, according to findings from ROTH Capital Partner’s Millennial Survey.

The report also finds that the demographic is likely to research brands and products via digital means before shopping in stores: 43 percent prefer this method, compared to just 32 percent who prefer to complete the entire transaction online. And as we wrote earlier this year, approximately 82 percent of Millennials believe its important for a brand to have physical stores — compared to only 69 percent of Gen-X and 65 percent of Baby Boomers, according to a report from eMarketer.

At first glance, it’s surprising that the digital native generation (67 percent of Millennials say that they prefer to shop digitally) values brick-and-mortar more than any other demographic. But there isn’t a disconnect: Millennials simply want the option to shop both online and offline — and they even want to shop on their mobile devices while they’re in their favorite stores.

Improving The In-Store Experience

So, how can marketers deliver on the promise of a better in-store experience?

By now, it’s a given that brands need to give all customers the choice of how they prefer to purchase in a seamless, omnichannel manner. But two initiatives stand out for reaching millennials in particular.

The first is buy online, pick up in-store programs. Because millennials are reportedly likely to find inspiration online and to pick out products there before coming into a store, the option for in-store pick up let’s them complete the transaction even more quickly — though they may still choose to browse in the store once they arrive. In fact, across demographics, most shoppers make an additional purchase during in-store pickup.

In terms of improving the retail experience, stores functioning as digitally-equipped showrooms, like Blue Nile, have seen success with this demographic: Shoppers can look at and experience the retailer’s wares in person, but they can still place their order on mobile if they wish. Additionally, store associates equipped with iPads make it easier for shoppers to get the information they want — without having to wait in line for one checkout kiosk.

“Millennials want to be a part of the brand experience,” Alison DaSilva, EVP at Cone Communications, a firm specializing in cause marketing and sustainability, told eMarketer. “They want to see and touch the impact they have, and [that extends] to the companies they [patronize].”

They just don’t want to have to wait in line to do it.

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