The Home Depot, Lowe's, Newegg and 1-800-Flowers are among the first retailers using a beta version of Apple Business Chat, a mobile chat tool that allows consumers to speak directly to, as well as make purchases from, representatives of retailers and other businesses via iPhone and iPad chat capabilities, according to an Apple Newsroom post.
Apple Business Chat is one of several features in the iOS 11.3 device software update, which became available last week. The software update also includes augmented reality technology enhancements that can allow AR apps to recognize both vertical and horizontal surfaces as they map room environments, according to Apple.
Apple stated in its post that iPhone and iPad users who search for specific businesses in its Maps, Safari, Search or Siri tools "will see the option to contact the business using Messages to ask a question about a product or service, or make a purchase using Apple Pay. These conversations can be continued on Apple Watch or Mac."
It has been about 10 months since we first heard about Apple Business Chat, and it's still not live. The beta version brings us one step closer to that point, and in retail, you can bet many retailers and e-commerce firms will be watching Home Depot, Lowe's, Newegg and 1-800-Flowers in the coming months to determine any customer support effects.
Though Apple is being careful about offering Business Chat to too many companies at an early stage (the four retailers mentioned are among 10 beta participants across multiple industries), the new capability should be fairly easy for businesses to adopt. It integrates with customer support platforms that many of them use already, such as LivePerson and Nuance.
Lowe's, for example, is using the chat tool in concert with LivePerson, and already has a grasp of the potential value it can provide. Gihad Jawhar, vice president of digital development at Lowe's, commented on the convenience of the platform, saying in a statement that, "With Apple Business Chat, our customers can engage with Lowe's customer service on their terms, whether they're sitting at their work computers or out running errands."
As more retailers are trying out new communications technologies, such as chatbots, to help them respond more quickly and directly to customer inquiries, a direct chat line initiated on the customer's own terms could be a powerful tool. Apple Business Chat could potentially deliver a more personal and fulfilling engagement with the customer than an automated chatbot can, although it may be more of a complement to other forms of communication rather than a replacement.
The greatest long-term value of Apple Business Chat, however, could be the fact that customers can make purchases in a chat session, enabled with Apple Pay. It's not clear yet how popular that feature would be, but it could help retailers lend their mobile sales channels a more personalized, service-oriented feeling — the type of thing that usually makes customers go in-store.