1-800-Flowers on chatbots, online gifting and the automation of thoughtfulness

As artificial intelligence interfaces replace human customer service representatives, retail transactions are becoming more convenient and less human. Which is just how some customers want it.

"Hi. I’m Gwyn, your gift concierge, and I will help you pick the perfect gift."

With this introduction, 1-800-Flowers.com is aligning the customer-centric traditions of its signature floral and gourmet gift delivery business with the emerging technology of the 21st century. GWYN, an acronym for Gifts When You Need, is an artificial intelligence (AI) engine based on the IBM Watson-powered Fluid Expert Personal Shopper (XPS) digital commerce platform, and her customer service skills add a new page to the Carle Place, New York-based gifting empire's playbook.

On the surface, the concept is straightforward. GWYN (or more informally, Gwyn) is an online representative, or virtual concierge. She—and the AI definitely identifies as female—is designed to mimic natural language and assist customers in navigating through the products available at 1-800-Flowers.com.

GWYN can make suggestions, answer questions and help complete a purchase. Of course, it’s not easy to make tech look this effortless. To that end, she uses a rather intricate question analysis API.

“We developed GYWN as another way to create a great customer experience,” Dave Taiclet, president of 1-800-Flowers.com's Gourmet Food Group, told Retail Dive. “When people want to give a gift, there’s a lot of ways they go about it. I think this helps that, and it helps us engage with customers in the way they want to engage.”

Tech support

The GWYN interface, available on 1-800-Flowers.com’s mobile and desktop platforms, is a natural follow-up to the recent launch of its Facebook Messenger chatbot, which enables users of the social media platform's popular Messenger app to order items simply by interacting with 1-800-Flowers’ automated Messenger account.

Taiclet says that 1-800-Flowers.com feels that technologies like chatbots and AI are making online interaction simpler, rather than more difficult, by providing another way to communicate.

“We’re trying to make it easy,” he said. “Customers are already on Facebook, and so when they see a reason for a gifting opportunity, they think they can do this now, and make it happen. When you look at the future of consumers, and what they want in the gifting industry, they want as many ways of interacting as possible."

Another way that 1-800-Flowers.com seeks to connect with millennial and tech-savvy customers—and, by extension, position itself as a forward-thinking brand—is by expanding to Amazon's Alexa voice assistant platform. The move, timed to coincide with Mother’s Day 2016, allows customers to use Amazon’s Echo, Echo Dot, Amazon Tap or Fire TV products to place simple orders.

For Taiclet, automating the gift selection process is just another way to keep his customers happy. “There are multiple ways a customer can interact with us,” he said. “You can dial any of our 800 numbers and get a personal connection. But when you come to our website, you have a specific need. The customer makes that decision, and we’re trying to be available in whatever way customers want to transact with us.”

Increasingly, human-free interactions seemed to be the preferred option. According to an April 2015 study done by Aspect Software, close to a third of consumers would rather clean a toilet than speak to customer service. Taiclet is working to make sure that those customers are well-served.

“If you realize someone’s birthday is tomorrow and you don’t want to speak to anybody, you can still make that transaction,” he said. “And we know that a lot of people use our automated service. So we have to make the technology seem intuitive.”

Facing the competition

AI is poised to transform multiple facets of 1-800-Flowers.com's business, Taiclet said. “The world is changing, and we see our customers changing.”

But expectations are changing as well. The initial reviews of the Facebook Messenger chatbot were underwhelming at best. A Gizmodo tech writer reported limited choice options, long hang times and anxiety-provoking checkout procedures. While these problems can be attributed to the novelty of the technology, TechTimes was more damning in its assessment, saying simply that the “Messenger bots fail as AI.”

Taiclet, however, is not fazed by the potential pitfalls, and instead is delighted with how many customers wanted to interact with the new bots. “We were blown away by the number of customers who have engaged with us via that Messenger app,” he said. “It was tens of thousands of people.”

However, 1-800-Flowers.com is not a young company—founder and CEO Jim McCann opened his first flower shop in 1976—and no matter how many new toys it employs, it can’t deny the competition it’s facing from digitally-native gifting companies including The Bouqs Co., Farmgirl Flowers, and BloomNation.

This younger generation of companies developed in the age of the Internet, and may be pushing 1-800-Flowers.com to expand both its technological capabilities and its gifting categories just to keep up. In addition to flowers, the company offers food options from Cheryl’s, Fannie May, The Popcorn Factory, Fruit Bouquets and Harry and David.

We acquired Harry and David about a year and a half ago, and it’s helped transform our company,” Taiclet said. “It’s so relevant to our customers. The floral category is foundational to what we’ve done, but we’re growing in food, which is a fragmented industry with opportunities to scale.”

Taiclet says some of his customers have found occasions when flowers aren’t appropriate, and to that end, the company wants to make sure they’re providing options. “A lot of flower shops carry other gifts in their brick and mortar stores,” he said. “So in some ways, we’re just replicating that experience online.”

But trying to be all things to all customers, and trying to recreate brick-and-mortar experiences online, can reek of stodginess. Then, of course, there’s the outdated name.

“Our name speaks to our history,” Taiclet said. “It’s foundational. It shows how we evolved as a company, and it shows a history and a convenience.”

Whether Taiclet’s perception of legacy and convenience will translate into a revitalized brand is still unclear. But he maintains the company is up for the challenge.

“Clearly, we’ve had competition for years,” Taiclet said. “We have competitors popping up every day, not only in the floral space but in the food space. But we want to stay focused on using the breadth of products that we can offer, and we’re trying to create an experience with customers that increases customer retention.”

In the end, new ideas such as GWYN are about offering shoppers choices, more than anything else. Whether the technology is helpful or clunky is somewhat besides the point.

“A big part of our business is telephonic,” Taiclet said. “The GWYN product just gives you lots of options."

Filed Under: Technology E-commerce