Grocery retailers personalize the shopping experience with chatbots

Chatbots are gaining popularity as a customer service tool in multiple industries, and grocery retailers are using the technology to offer shoppers a personalized experience. Chatbots in the grocery sector offer consumers everything from recipe suggestions to collaborative shopping carts, and they can provide valuable customer insights for retailers.

Whole Foods Market launched its recipe database chatbot last summer. Consumers can communicate with the brand’s robot chef through Facebook Messenger and use ingredient keywords or cuisine types to get recipe recommendations. Users can also enter emojis, such as a certain fruit or vegetable, instead of typing out ingredient names.

“Our goal is to make recipe discovery easy and to help our customers find new ways to experience the foods they love. Whole Foods Market customers are always looking for inspiration, no matter whether they are at home, on the run, or walking down our aisles.” said Jeff Jenkins, global executive of digital strategy and marketing at Whole Foods, according to a report in VentureBeat.

Shoppers’ searches can offer a window into their lives for Whole Foods, said Ben Lamm, CEO and founder of Conversable, which creates chatbots for brands including Whole Foods, Sam’s Club and Wing Stop.

“Bots are continuously ingesting information from the consumers who use them. They serve as the eyes and the ears for the brand, and offer insights about consumers that grocery retailers have previously not been privy to,” Lamm said.  “If you think about it, the grocery retail experience has very little consumer interaction built in –- at the checkout, in coupons, sometimes in the aisles when they ask for help, but there is no good way to capture or put that information to use. Now, brands like Whole Foods have real-time data about their consumers’ needs and desires.”

Whole Foods’ chatbot can be used by consumers either at home or in the store, if they are planning menus on-the-fly. Use of apps and other tech tools while in the store is increasingly common among grocery shoppers. Just under 60% of grocery consumers use their mobile devices for deals and coupons, and more than 50% of shoppers use retailers’ apps when grocery shopping, according to a report released earlier this year by the Food Marketing Institute and Nielsen. Since chatbots are often integrated into platforms shoppers may already use regularly, like Facebook Messenger, they can offer even greater convenience since they don’t require customers to download an additional app.

In an effort to give shoppers a resource they can use to find answers to their questions while in the store, a location of the Patel Brothers Indian grocery store in Pineville, N.C., worked with San Francisco bot developer Gupshup to create a virtual assistant. The Facebook Messenger bot can list the store’s daily deals or help shoppers locate certain items. Store owner Nikunj Patel told the Charlotte Business Journal he’s looking to add a “smart shopping” feature that would let customers place orders to pick up in the store.

Ordering through chatbots, known as conversational commerce, is increasingly popular with restaurant brands, but the options are still limited among grocery retailers. One brand that is an early adopter of ordering via chatbot is New York-based FreshDirect. The grocery and meal kit delivery company partnered with MasterCard to allow customers to create collaborative shopping lists and place orders using Facebook Messenger. Groups such as families or roommates can all add to a shopping list and then securely check out via the Masterpass mobile payments app within Facebook Messenger.

Lamm predicts more retailers will add chatbots with ordering capabilities as consumers demand more options and convenience from their shopping experience. He cautions brands to keep the customer experience in mind when designing chatbots. “The food industry is rooted in service, and the ability to meet a changing consumer audience where they are is vital to any brand's success. However, with any implementation of a conversational interface, the challenge is to make sure you are creating value for the consumer within the services offered by the brand,” he said.

“In the beginning of the chatbot era, people often assumed that you could say anything you wanted and the wish would be granted. Still today, managing consumer expectations within the framework of your business continues to be a challenge. However, I absolutely do think we will see grocery delivery and click-and-collect services using chatbots in the future -- the on-demand economy is not going anywhere, and chatbots are the perfect vehicle for the digital experience.”

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