Teen apparel retailer rue21 on Tuesday launched a visual virtual stylist on Facebook Messenger with artificial intelligence-driven shopping bot provider mode.ai, leveraging Messenger’s new Chat Extensions feature unveiled at this week’s F8 Facebook Developer Conference.
In a related move, mode.ai also announced at the F8 event its own technology integration with Chat Extensions, which allows users to interact with the virtual stylist in group and 1:1 message threads with friends. That integration allows the rue21 virtual stylist to be one of the first chatbots supporting the new feature.
Rue21’s other virtual stylist features include image-based visual styling suggestions; color and price search filters; size personalization; styling inspiration and more.
Interestingly, the plunge into chatbots comes just days after rue21 announced it is closing 400 of its 1,100 stores nationwide and after months of financial struggles, during which the retailer replaced its CEO and missed loan payments, but also vowed to “transform the customer experience.”
Adopting mode.ai’s technology to offer a virtual stylist shopping bot is a significant step in that direction. With stores closing, the retailer clearly needs to create closer bonds with customers, and maximize its potential to complete sales through channels beyond brick-and-mortar.
Mode.ai's integration with Facebook Messenger's newest chatbot feature, Chat Extensions, may help, as it brings chatbots on Messenger to a new level of group interaction that they weren't capable of before. Instead of being a bare-bones search engine or text-based stepping stone to a human customer service rep, a chatbot with Chat Extensions can become more a part of an ongoing chat conversation — or at least a silent partner in that conversation, ready to pipe up when asked.
These announcements come one year after what now might be called a big breakthrough moment for chatbots in retail and brand marketing. A year ago at F8, Facebook introduced what was essentially a chatbot software platform in Messenger, encouraging retailers and others to develop chatbots for customer service and sales purposes. Companies from across retail and related segments responded in a big way, with many developing chatbots on Messenger to engage with customers and carry out other functions..
Still, this first-generation of chatbots has not been capable of all that much. "A lot of chatbots right now will just answer an initial question and then push you to a person or somewhere else," Karen Ouk, senior vice president of business development at mode.ai, told Retail Dive recently.
Ouk said mode.ai is trying to change that by pumping chatbots full of artificial intelligence to make the next generation of chatbots on Messenger and other messaging platforms more capable and useful to consumers, and more helpful to retailers by connecting with inventory feeds and other elements of their operations. "There's an opportunity for bots on messaging platforms to allow retailers to have a level of relationship with customers that they currently don't have on any other platform," Ouk said.
Can one virtual stylist chatbot change the fortunes of rue21? That may be a lot to ask, but if the retailer has now settled on a more customer-centric strategy, it's new virtual stylist may help it put that plan into action.