Which commerce innovations are here to stay?

A Mosaic-led panel tackled how things like data, AR and voice could be more than just passing fads.

Mosaic-future

Upper left, clockwise: moderator Jesse Lipscombe, panelists Dr. Chris Gray, Melissa Gonzalez and Eric Bogart.

Are augmented reality and voice more than gimmicks? How can you harness big data while still letting consumers serve their desire to discover their new favourite product on their own? Can brands effectively look to the future when their insights are based in the past?

Those are all questions that come up during a recent panel hosted by Mosaic, where panelists went through a list of trends one by one, dubbing each one either a “truth” that would be sticking around, or a “trend” that could fizzle out.

According to a recent PwC report, consumers under 25 are driving adoption of voice-enabled devices, but are not necessarily heavy users once the tech is inside their home. This is partly due to perceptions that it’s not very effective at saving time or making life easier, or that it’s not as accurate or secure as a more conventional search.

According to Eric Bogart, VP of advanced analytics at Mosaic North America, voice interaction is not a natural mode for most consumers to build a shopping basket, making it hard to incorporate into their habits. But Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of retail advisory firm The Lionesque Group, countered that voice is a more innate and fluid means of communicating – it just needs more fine tuning to avoid being too robotic, and usage could increase once consumers become more used to talking to a device.

I talk to Alexa all the time,” Gonzalez jokes. “My daughter is five and she modulates between Alexa and Google, depending who’s gonna give her the answer she wants. As a human behavior, I think it’s very natural to interact through voice commands.”

Another technology that’s been at the forefront of a lot of strategies – especially during a pandemic that limits trial opportunities – is AR.

Dr. Chris Gray, founder and chief behaviourist at Buycology, remained equivocal about the promise of AR and VR. In specific categories and situations, there is tremendous potential.

He cited example of a dermatology brand that created a VR “day in the life” of an acne patient, and then used it as a B2B sales tool for a dermatologist to better convey the difficulties faced by some patients and assisting with empathy-building – something that is especially useful in any pharma-related space right now, as sales reps have limited access to doctors in their offices.

But he also warns that he has encountered situations where a retailer simply puts up a VR station, and it really has little to do with the actual products on display. Tim Hortons, for example, recently launched a full body AR Lens so users could “try on” a Timbit hat.

“I think that ultimately, you need to think, does the customer or shopper find it uniquely and genuinely helpful in making their decisions?” Gray asks.

Data is also being used to take some of the planning out of shopping. Amazon, for example, recently unveiled an auto-replenishment system that predicts when users will be running low on some supplies.

That service is a boon to some, like parents, for whom Bogart says being out of diapers is unconscionable, adding that there are categories where ecommerce and autoreplenishing makes a ton of sense.

“However, I think people want a sense of agency,” Gray added. “They want to feel like I’m in control, I’m not just having things sent to me.”

The pair agreed that because of human beings’ desire for variety, there will always be categories that are “a joy to shop” – consumers don’t mind taking time to find the right product for them if looking through a selection and imaging themselves with them is fun. The key is dialing up the randomness to ensure that there’s a portion of the shopping experience that isn’t deterministic. Bogart says brands need to ask themselves if they just want to give consumers what they already have an affinity for, or whether they can use algorithms to curate experiences so that they can help them expand on what they like.

Bogart cites the Coca Cola Freestyle touch screen dispensers, which can be used to create over 150 different drinks using different beverage and flavour combinations. This gave consumers a lab to make their own products, so that Coke could better understand regional and consumer preferences to inform subsequent creative.

“You can build an integrated marketing plan, all starting from that real world, free form interaction with the consumer,” Bogart says.

However, that’s where human judgement comes in to decide what to do with it. The panelists warned that while algorithms play a really important role in the shopping experience, brands should not ignore the fact that basing all of their decisions on past information limits forward thinking and innovation. Also, there are circumstances in which algorithms don’t provide enough specifics.

“A campaign might be targeting moms, but there’s so many nuances to moms, there’s working moms, there’s stay at home moms, there’s suburban moms, there’s urban moms,” Gonzalez says. “Where are you not accounting for some of those nuances, I think that it could be a problem that can go wrong.”