Something I’ve blogged about before is the AI-powered (Artificial Intelligence) Easy Button from Staples. In 2016, the Easy Button, previously a light-hearted piece of branding merchandise, made a bold move towards the world of AI.
Teaming up with IBM and its Watson artificial intelligence technology, the new Easy Button was to become much more than a novelty item. It was redesigned to be the proof-of-concept for a tool to help customers get what they needed faster. More specifically, the new Easy Button was intended to act as a facilitator for supply re-ordering.
This next-generation Easy Button incorporated built-in voice recognition technology that allowed the customer to place an order or ask a question, which was then sent to Staples’s customer service software for processing. The full array of customer service options normally available via a “point-and-click” traditional website (i.e., searching for products, placing orders, tracking shipments, etc.) could all be accomplished via voice.
The AI component of the Easy Button incorporated machine learning, meaning it would remember and learn based on previous information. For example, it would recall the exact brand and quantity of copy/printer paper you asked for on previous orders, and you would be able to purchase more when needed simply by pressing the button and saying, “order more paper.”
In the case of Staples, they were using a physical button to tie in the future with their branding’s past, and they also planned to offer the same technology in a forthcoming revision of the Staples smartphone app.
Ok, but what does this have to do with distribution?
Here is where a broader implication for distribution businesses comes in. Similar voice and AI technology have since been successfully implemented in other apps, and now a new paradigm of e-commerce has emerged. Staples originally labeled it “AI-powered conversational commerce,” which has since become more commonly referred to as simply “conversational commerce.”
Staples’s next-gen Easy Button didn’t seem to make a great impact beyond its initial testing, but it certainly demonstrated what was right around the corner because, as most people know by now, big players picked up on the concept and ran with it.
Today the biggest giants in tech all have their voice apps: Apple has Siri, Google has Hey Google, and Amazon has Alexa. All of these allow users to research products and make online purchases simply by talking into or sending an image to their smartphone.
Amazon is the one to watch … and take advantage of
Because access to Alexa is so easy, and the items Amazon stocks are so plentiful, there’s no question that conversational commerce could crush a lot of distributors who are not part of the Amazon ecosystem.
Here’s what’s already happening in your space: Once someone orders something (anything!) from Amazon, they can very easily re-order it through Alexa. Of course, Alexa might not hear well over the noise on a job site using an Echo (the Echo is the speaker, Alexa is the system), but that’s okay, because Alexa also lives in our smartphones. If you have the Amazon Shopping app, which is ranked the #1 shopping app these days, you have Alexa.
So now, with one tap on your smartphone and the words, “Alexa, order me 1000 yards of copper wire”, the wire can be at your job site within a few hours (depending on your location), or at the very least, within the next day or two. Even if you haven’t ordered wire before, the app will present a list of wire to choose from, and you simply click on the item(s) you’d like.
I did it in less than a minute. Here’s what was presented to me when I tried it myself.
If you don’t like talking to Alexa, you can instead point the app at an item, and when Amazon recognizes the item, the app will present you with its purchase opportunities. Here’s an example of how quick and easy it is.
The intelligence, speed, and ease-of-use with these apps is almost frightening. So, as a distributor, how do you compete?
Distributors have two options
- Join the masses: Amazon is in your space, at least for now, so anyone interested in leveraging what they offer and perhaps even beating them at their own game, should consider having their items on Amazon. Learn how to get the “long tail” benefits of being in their marketplace. Even if you only get a fractional percentage of the sales being generated there, it will keep you in the game and should give you access to a much larger audience.
- Do it yourself: With the right software development team, this kind of app can be built very easily on its own.
Ultimately, e-commerce is a version of what was done in the days of brick-and-mortar wholesale, retail, and mail-order. Sales will always be sales, regardless of the form.
My strongest message is: don’t make the mistake of using Amazon entering your space as an excuse to put e-commerce on the back burner and turn a blind eye.
If you haven’t already done so, it’s not too late to move into a future-oriented mindset. The fact is, if you don’t put at least some resources towards innovation, you will get left behind.Tagged with e-commerce, marketing