Technology is playing an ever-important role in the shopping side of the holiday season. Logistics aside, which is of course critical at this time of year, tech is also proving increasingly key from an experiential and a customer service perspective both online and offline. Leading that charge for 2016 are virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).
Google has employed the former this year, for instance, to allow consumers to ‘walk’ along Fifth Avenue in New York to experience all the holiday window displays.
Window Wonderland, as the initiative is called, is a VR experience that lets users view 18 different retailers including Bloomingdale’s, Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co, Burberry and more. They can zoom in on the displays and even listen to audio guides from some of the store creatives talking about this year’s work.
The experience was produced by Google’s Art, Copy & Code team by taking hundreds of high-resolution images of each store and then stitching them together so they can be viewed via a web browser, on a smartphone or tablet, or through a VR headset. The effect is almost like a moving image; a rich, life-like panorama.
“We all love the window tradition here. It’s such an iconic thing. We thought it might be fun to put a unique Google spin on it and bring it to the masses,” Aman Govil, head of the Art, Copy & Code projects team, told Fast Company.
VR is also getting a spin in the UK, where department store John Lewis has introduced an experience tied to its Buster the Boxer advertising campaign. Visitors to its Oxford Street flagship in London can enter the world of Buster and all his friends using an Oculus Rift. They can also view a 360-degree film using Google Cardboard or by watching it on YouTube.
Artificial intelligence, meanwhile, is being heavily experimented with in the form of chatbots for the holidays.
IBM Watson has worked with Mall of America for instance, on a Facebook Messenger bot called E.L.F, which stands for Experiential List Formulator. Created in collaboration with Watson developer partner Satisfi, it helps visitors plan a more personalised experience to the shopping centre by determining things like how much time they have and what activities they prefer.
“The holiday season is upon us and, for many, this represents the most hectic shopping period of the year. Whether you’re navigating crowded shopping centres or debating what gifts to buy, the in-store experience can be particularly overwhelming,” explains Don White, CEO of Satisfi. The chatbot aims to better understand, connect with, and create superior experiences for shoppers accordingly.
The launch of Facebook Messenger’s bot store earlier this year is behind much of the drive for experimentation in this space. Already throughout 2016, we’ve seen fashion and retail brands including Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Everlane, eBay and more launching their own versions. In total, 33,000 different bots have been introduced since April.
For the holidays, Burberry has extended its version from the original one it launched for London Fashion Week. This time, users are introduced to its The Tale of Thomas Burberry festive campaign, which tells the story behind its founder. Different layers of the tale are unveiled using emojis, including the invention of Gabardine fabric in 1879 using a raindrop, the introduction of Sienna Miller’s character using a heart, and more. Users can also see behind-the-scenes of the film, browse gift ideas and opt into a ‘live chat’ with a human consultant.
This mix of storytelling, product discovery and customer service is seen as the likely future for chatbots; making consumer engagement possible at a much wider scale than could have been achieved before. It’s about answering as much as possible for shoppers through AI, before escalating to a human only when needed.
Gift guides is another example. Chatbots are making suggestions for what to buy at a much greater level of detail than ever before, as achieved by the likes of H&M and American Eagle using messaging service, Kik, which also has a substantial bot store.
Nordstrom’s bot, available on both Kik and Facebook and developed in collaboration with mobile messaging company Snaps, also focuses on helping shoppers find the perfect Christmas presents.
Estée Lauder’s No. 6 Mortimer in London is even making purchases possible directly through the Facebook Messenger app. Customers can checkout using Paypal without having to go to an outside website. Mark Lapicki, director of retail innovation at The Estée Lauder Companies UK and Ireland, told WWD the pilot service was for “time-poor consumers seeking ultimate convenience, with immediate purchase and delivery of our products in as little as 60 minutes”.
While significant conversions aren’t anticipated from each of those experimenting this season – aware of the fact such interaction remains very new for consumers – this is a trend expected to carry through and make significant inroads for 2017.
This story first appeared on Forbes