“By 2026, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.” -- Kevin Kelly
In his excellent new book, “The Inevitable,” Kevin Kelly describes 12 technological forces that are shaping our future and which we’d be wise to accept and align with, rather than fight.
Each chapter, despite bearing a name that seems lifted from the collected works of Foucault, describes, in compelling detail, a bundle of technologies and related cultural behaviors. They include Screening (the digitization of reading, watching, producing); Tracking (self-quantification); Filtering (personalization); Cognifying (artificial intelligence) and Interacting (VR). It should be mentioned that there is no chapter named “Brexit,” suggesting that Kelly, for all his sage-like gifts, is as flummoxed by that development as the rest of us.
The fun starts when you cross-pollinate the different branches to see what might turn up, e.g., a Billboard chart of the top songs created by AIs (the HAL 100?), or using VR to visit an actual war zone or the surface of a comet. This is, in a sense, what good startups do, building new products from current tech in alignment with future trends.
Mobile shopping seems like another such inevitability. Not just the quotidian shopping we do through Amazon, Starbucks, or Fresh Direct, but shopping for high-end, high-consideration items: cars, luxury clothes, or a Sub-Zero fridge. This is due to macro trends—the explosion of the mobile ecosystem, which completely eclipsed the PC market 4 years ago (1.5 billion units sold per year versus 300 million), the huge growth of messaging as the new mobile run time (the four largest messaging apps have more users than the four largest social networks), and the new routes to market opened by these new mobile platforms (iOS, Android, WeChat, Messenger, etc).
On the face of it, a new car seems like the craziest thing to buy through your smartphone, yet it’s already happening. Last year, Smart Car sold 388 cars in 3 minutes through WeChat. Looking specifically at fashion retail, the services on mobile can be roughly categorized as personalization, curation, and bots/conversational commerce, all of which overlap to varying degrees. I experimented with each, and here are my (somewhat anecdotal) results.
I set out to buy a pair of low-top designer-made Chuck Taylors. Not an impossible task, but not plain vanilla, either. Frank + Oak (along with Trunk Club), is a leader in the personalization space, so I used their app, loving the experience from the first screen.
So I asked for the sneakers and was told that they usually respond within five – 10 minutes. I waited five minutes (an eternity in mobile screen time), then got impatient and fired up Operator, a bot within Facebook Messenger. After some initial questions (Male or Female, etc), I entered my query and got an almost immediate response.
Great! But when I clicked on See Details, I was handed off, slowly, to a Web view that asked me again if I wanted the shoes, then when I confirmed I did, asked me to fill in all my personal and credit card info. Fail! All that data is already stored in Apple Pay on my phone, don’t ask me again! So I left Operator.
Next I booted up Spring, a mobile-only luxury retail company started by Alan and David Tisch here in New York City. Spring features 1,200 (mostly) high-end retailers in an intuitively curated environment, and it’s a genuine pleasure to use. I found the sneakers in 15 seconds, and it took me another 15 seconds to purchase them. The seamless integration both with the retailer’s ecommerce backend, as well as with Apple Pay, meant that I had zero forms to fill out. Win!
When I tried doing the same thing using the Spring bot within Facebook Messenger, however, the experience was disappointing. Facebook does not seem to have direct backend integrations with all ecommerce partners, which means you get handed off to a Web page inside the app, slowing down the process considerably. So I bailed.
Lastly, I set out to buy another pair of Varvatos-designed Chuck Taylors (can you ever have too many?) on Kik, using the H&M bot. At first, the experience was great, because H&M easily automated the most basic questions (Male? Female? Shoes? Pants?)
But then I found myself stuck in an endless loop of “do you like this outfit?” from which I could not extract myself even by typing a query. It seems I had bumped up against the limits of this particular AI.
Final results: Spring was the winner, both in terms of overall experience and the speediness from start to finish.
But the AI-enabled personalization offered in the other environments was genuinely compelling and would’ve kept me shopping if only the transaction itself hadn’t been so clunky.
The path to fixing the experience is pretty clear, as is the inevitability of human-assisted AI playing a major part in mobile retail fashion in years to come.