Conversational Commerce: Meet The Chatbots

The Washington Post: “While a Web browser might once have been our front door to the Internet and apps often play that role today, experts say that bots could soon become our primary digital gateway … The case for a bot-centric future goes like this: Smartphone users have proved they are only willing to download and spend time in a limited number of apps. So companies might be better off trying to connect with consumers in the apps where they are already spending plenty of time. And proponents say that a bot can potentially provide greater convenience than apps and Web searches because it can understand natural speech patterns.”

“Because bots are designed for one-to-one conversation, they may ultimately find their most logical home in messaging apps, which are seeing explosive growth in users and are the digital-communication channel of choice for Generation Z … It is against that backdrop that big retailers and Silicon Valley are racing to develop ways to use bots within messaging apps to deliver customer service or to enable browsing and buying … In retail industry jargon, this is coming to be known as “conversational commerce,” and brands are betting on it because of some distinct advantages it could provide in connecting with shoppers.”

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Late & Great: Giorgio’s Fred Hayman

The New York Times: The late Fred Hayman “was the banquet and catering manager at the Beverly Hilton in 1961 when he invested several thousand dollars to become the silent partner in Giorgio, a struggling women’s clothing store off Rodeo Drive … The location was nothing special.”

“They saw the street, in their dreams, as a rival to Bond Street in London or Fifth Avenue in New York. Mr. Hayman showcased top designers new to the West Coast … He created a sunny, eye-catching exterior with awnings in bright yellow and white and a clubby interior with a pool table and an oak bar, with free drinks, so men could relax while their wives or girlfriends shopped.”

“Drawing on his hotel experience, he lavished the attentions of a concierge on his customers. He sent handwritten thank-you notes, set up a valet parking service and delivered packages to his best customers in a 1952 Rolls-Royce. By the mid-1970s the A-list clients were pouring in … spending tens of thousands of dollars in one go. Some patrons arrived with an extra limousine to haul away their purchases.”

“It was incredible how the money just flowed in,” Mr. Hayman told The New York Times in 1991. “You really didn’t have to sell. You’d just stand there and the customer would say, ‘I’ll have that and that and that and that.’” Fred Hayman was 90.

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Philz Coffee: The Value is in The Experience

A San Francisco coffee house called Philz plans to challenge Starbucks with a different kind of experience, Forbes reports. “At Philz you won’t find the fancy brewing equipment of an artisanal coffeehouse. Beans are ground to order and then splashed with 205-degree water in pour-over funnel brewers. The coffee is good, but it is not cheap–a small coffee costs almost twice as much as Starbucks’ equivalent. Philz proponents say the value lies as much in the experience, or in what (founder Phil Jaber and his son Jacob) call ‘Grandma’s House,’ as it does in the coffee.”

“Unlike the corporate uniformity of Starbucks or the manicured hipster haunts like Blue Bottle, Philz has an informal charm that can be found in the mismatched couches at its original location and in the cup-by-cup approach of its baristas, who load drinks with heavy cream and brown sugar to each customer’s preference. ‘Taste it and make sure it’s perfect,’ a barista says before handing over a beverage. Details like that foster ‘an emotional connection’ for customers, says Jacob, 29, the CEO. ‘We think of ourselves as more in the people business than the coffee business.'”

“This year Philz plans to open at least two locations in Washington, D.C., the first true test of whether the company’s service-oriented approach can succeed outside California. Ultimately Jacob has visions of expanding into New York and Boston, with 1,000 stores nationwide, and “disrupting” the coffee industry … So far the company has interviewed more than 300 people, and Jacob has hired 30 … All will go through the company’s Apple-influenced Philz University training program, where they’ll be taught not to ask for customer names the way Starbucks does when taking orders. Doing so, Jacob says, is impersonal, because it suggests you’ve never met, and there’s a chance you’ll get it wrong.”

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Virgin-Alaska: Passion vs. Performance

The New York Times: The Alaska Airlines takeover of Virgin America may test whether passion or performance is paramount when it comes to creating customer loyalty. “Although Alaska has been a perennial leader in best-airline rankings, its allure comes more from its reliability than mood lighting or funny safety videos. Like Virgin America, it inspires loyalty among customers, if not the same passion.”

However, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt thinks Virgin America “failed to capitalize on its San Francisco hub or to build on its early innovations … The airline compensated for its financial losses by cutting flights in recent years, even as it added routes to Hawaii and elsewhere. While passengers may love the ambience of a Virgin flight, they love the ability to get where they are going more.”

“The combination of hip and practical could give the new company a competitive advantage, Mr. Harteveldt said. The smartest thing Alaska could do … would be to combine the characteristics that have made each airline popular.”

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Breadsticks & The Olive Garden Comeback

The Wall Street Journal: The Olive Garden’s turnaround began when Dave George, its president, “and members of his senior management team flew to different Olive Garden restaurants around the U.S. to work alongside busboys, dishwashers and cooks … Busboys said they cleared tables and set them with napkins, cutlery and glasses for a full party. If a hostess seated two people at a table for four, she would remove the extra settings, undoing their work. Cooks said they spent too much time filling cups of precisely measured basil for garnish—a regimen created to save waste. They also complained of having to weigh servings of uncooked pasta to fill 8-ounce bags.”

“We were spending a lot of labor hours on preparation and production and it added no benefit to the guest,” said Mr. George.

Then there were the breadsticks: “The quality of the breadsticks at Olive Garden … had declined, with the popular appetizers often cooling and hardening after sitting at the table for more than seven minutes … Managers were told to stick to the policy of delivering more breadsticks only on request. As the chain grew over the years to more than 800 restaurants with 90,000 employees, the policy wasn’t consistently followed, with some servers bringing out more without being asked.”

The chain also introduced “tabletop tablets for customers to order and pay for meals … to reduce wait times,” which allowed ” restaurants, on average, to close out checks seven minutes faster.” In addition: “Last summer, the chain began offering guests waiting for a table a 50% discount on a glass of wine, encouraging some guests to order a second glass.”

Since the moves, which followed “a rare shareholder coup 18 months ago” by Starboard Value LP, “the previously struggling stock has risen 47%, versus 6% for the S&P 500; much of its real estate has been spun off, giving shareholders a second stock; and year-over-year sales at existing locations of the Olive Garden chain have increased for six straight quarters.”

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Fina Finds New Beginning As Dot-Com

The New York Times: “On April 16, Michael C. Fina, which had sales of $16 million last year, will close its sole brick-and-mortar store, laying off about 20 workers and bringing to an end an 81-year run in Manhattan. Instead, the retailer is moving entirely online, including teaming with Amazon.com as part of a planned revamping of the e-commerce giant’s wedding registry service.”

Fina “already operates an e-commerce site, but it can take up to 72 hours for a product to be shipped … Amazon has told him that its fulfillment centers will be able to ship an order in as little as two hours. Mr. Fina also said he expected shipping costs to fall by as much as 50 percent, because of Amazon’s economies of scale.”

The bridal-registry retailer “will also offer its wares on Zola.com … Shan-Lyn Ma, founder of Zola.com, said that because couples in the United States were marrying much later than ever, and because they increasingly lived with their partners before tying the knot, their wedding gift needs had shifted away from the housewares and appliances that traditionally went toward setting up a first home.” She explains: “Couples are really starting to value experiences rather than straight wedding products.”

“On Zola.com, couples can list hiking trips, hot air balloon rides and food delivery subscriptions, as well as funds for puppies, honeymoons and even fertility treatments.” Ms. Ma started Zola in 2013. “But she has since realized that many couples want to add a few traditional items into their wedding registry mix. And a partnership with Michael C. Fina, she said, gave Zola access to brands that the site might have trouble courting.”

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Introducing the Meat-O-Mat!

The Wall Street Journal: “Attached to a laboratory-like plant in this upstate community is a neon-lit vending machine dubbed the Meat-O-Mat, where customers can buy locally raised meat whenever they like. If Joshua Applestone has his way, carnivores will flock to it the way that banking customers visit the ATM. His invention is stocked with pork chops, dry-aged burger patties, bratwurst meatballs and his beloved pork roll, a deli meat native to New Jersey. Customers swipe their credit cards, push a button, slide the door open and retrieve their hormone- and antibiotic-free selection.”

“Mr. Applestone and his partners at Applestone Meat Co., the attached plant, are attempting to develop a new, meat-centric business model. For the past two years, they have been exploring ways of making high-quality cuts available at lower prices by slashing labor costs and considering offbeat distribution methods like the Meat-O-Mat. ‘We’re going for a highway-roadside-attraction type of approach,’ said Samantha Gloffke, the company’s general manager and a part owner. ‘The goal is to make sustainability really exciting.'”

Mr. Applestone envisions them stationed at supermarkets, football stadiums and picnic sites, places where you might welcome the convenience of buying something to toss on the grill. ‘Think about it at any music festival,’ he said. ‘Anywhere someone brings a cooler, you no longer have to bring fresh meat. How much is peace of mind worth?'”

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Kaiser Re-Designs The Health Care Experience

Fast Company: “The exam room is part of Kaiser Permanente’s championing of a new human-centered, design-driven approach to medicine—and its vision for the future of health care delivery … The experience starts with the waiting rooms, which take their cues from retail and hospitality. At the Manhattan Beach outpost, the vibe is warm, West Coast modernism: There’s lots of wood, natural light, and inviting touches, such as a living wall of green plants. A pair of ATM–like kiosks near the front door allow members to check themselves in if they prefer not to wait for the tablet-wielding receptionist.”

Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson: “The culture of health care has been to get you in and out. We’re inviting you to linger. This is more than a physician visit; this is about your total health.”

“In larger facilities, the reception area will be reimagined as a kind of public square, where patients can wander while they wait, getting free information on nutrition and exercise from staff at a counter called the Thrive Bar. They can also take part in yoga classes, cooking demos, and the other programming that Kaiser is incorporating into ‘community rooms,’ which span both indoor and outdoor space … Kaiser’s new spaces are also about keeping costs low: They are designed to be more efficient at serving patients … Just as important for Kaiser, the hubs will serve as physical anchors for a model of care that aims to move health services, as much as possible, out of hospitals and medical offices and into members’ communities and homes.”

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Connie: Hilton’s Concierge Robot

“Concierge is getting a robotic makeover at one Hilton Hotels location,” reports The Christian Science Monitor. “The McLean, Va., Hilton is the site of a pilot program featuring a robot concierge. The new hire stands in at two-and-a-half feet tall and has been placed on the desk beside human reception staff. More than just a shiny piece of equipment, the robot’s brain is packed with artificial intelligence.”

“Connie, named after Hilton founder Conrad Hilton, is a partnership between Hilton Worldwide and IBM. The brains behind the robot are IBM’s artificial intelligence program Watson and another partner program called WayBlazer, imbuing the new concierge with enough AI to carry on conversations with guests and answer questions about the local area.”

“Connie’s body, though small, is also designed to help it serve. The body is based on the Nao robot designed by Aldebaran, with fully functional arms and legs and eyes that change to express humanlike emotions … Is the future of Hilton concierge robotic? Definitely not, according to Jim Holthouser, Hilton vice president of global brands.”

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For Whom The Cash Registers

“High-end stores hide registers to force contact with salespeople, eliminate lines and add fancy sheen,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Stores aim to make the experience of paying more elegant, akin to private shopping, and to eliminate a pain point that keeps some shoppers from completing a purchase—having to wait in a visible line. Hiding the cash register also forces shoppers to interact with the salespeople and might even encourage them to buy more.”

Dexter Peart of luxury label Want Les Essentiels: “We’re downplaying that last transactional part of the experience. … We want the human interaction as one of the last touch points … This time also gives our sales associates an opportunity to get to know the people shopping in our stores a lot better.”

“Stores say customers’ expectations have risen with the success and ease of online shopping, making waiting in line seem unenlightened … But making cash registers discreet and encouraging customers to work through sales associates instead could make some shoppers uncomfortable. The unfamiliar protocol may feel strange at first.” Barneys maintains “a few visible cash registers in the downtown store in case a customer feels more comfortable paying the traditional way.”

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