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1-800-Flowers CEO Chris McCann At NRF: Voice Is The UI Of The Future

And that voice activated future should be fully realized within 18 months, McCann said during a panel discussion at the NRF Big Show.

There is a “fifth way of change” in technology that is transforming retail discovery and shopping, Chris McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers, told the audience at the NRF Big Show this week.

The change he referred to is the role of Connected Intelligence and voice activation and digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Okay Google in spurring what he calls “conversational marketing,” And for 1-800-Flowers, it represents coming full circle.

In terms of outlining the path to voice search and conversational marketing, McCann pointed to three periods that have spanned 1-800-Flowers’ retail existence since it opened its first outlet in 1976: first there was the retail store, followed by the use of telephone delivery to bypass walking into a brick-and-mortar location.

The third wave was the web, and McCann touted 1-800-Flowers as opening one of the first e-commerce features on AOL in the 1990s.

The fourth wave of retail change is represented by the impact of mobile and social media and 1-800-Flowers reacted to that by being one of the first brands to launch artificial intelligence-powered bots on Facebook Messenger that allowed customers to transact through that heavily mobile social channel.

“As we all know, the customer is always in charge,” McCann said from the podium. “And it’s the customers who are leading us into these new technologies. It’s not us looking at the technology and saying, ‘We need to get involved in it.'”

1-800-Flowers’ AI-powered concierge.

Retail Tech’s Tipping Point

1-800-Flowers could also lay claim to be one of the first store brands to launch a voice-based application on Amazon’s Alexa platform. The idea was to get involved early and learn right along with its customers, McCann said, noting that company was fortunate that Amazon chose to feature 1-800-Flowers in one of its commercials promoting the Echo and Alexa.

“I think we’re at a tipping point, as technology companies like IBM, Google, Apple, and others that are developing these capabilities at ground breaking speeds,” McCann said. “And so it’s wise, based on the culture of our company. Why, back in 2016, we saw this world emerging and though it’s time to get involved as early as we possibly can.

“When we launched our bot, we were one of the first companies who were launching fully transactional bots in Facebook Messenger platform,” he said. “And why did we do that? Because they have over a billion active Messenger users. That’s where the consumer is choosing to spend time. They’re not necessarily coming to our website. They want to transact with us in Messenger. And we were fortunate that Mark Zuckerberg featured us in his F8 Conference that year, when they really announced Facebook’s personalized time bots.”

Two weeks after that, 1-800-Flowers debuted its own AI-powered concierge built on IBM’s Watson capabilities called “GWYN” (“Great acronym,” McCann said, saying it stands for “Gifts When You Need.”) Alexa is there to help with the top of the customer experience, such as helping to choosing the right product, for the right customer, for the right occasion, for the right time.”

Speeding Tickets Are Better Than Parking Tickets

In explaining 1-800-Flowers’ approach and philosophy about new technologies, McCann emphasized that mistakes do happen, but that it’s better to fail fast rather than move cautiously, since other brands will surpass you.

“We’re feeling the pressure to go even faster and faster, because I think mass adoption of these conversational commerce technologies is happening at a speed much faster than anything else we saw,” he said. “We think that mass adoption of these capabilities is happening in a span of about 18 months, so to stay in sync with our consumers we urge the people in our company, all of our team members, to get speeding tickets, not parking tickets.”

And so, with voice activation, 1-800-Flowers is back to where it started with taking telephone orders. “It all comes back to voice.”

“Our company a couple of years from now will look radically different than it does today, on how we interact and how we engage with our customers,” McCann said. “We’re leveraging AI technologies to deliver more personalized customer experience.

“We’re continuing to move the needle forward there. Voice is the UI of the future. You see studies now that show that Google’s voice recognition is at 95 percent or better on a better recognition rate. And with those technologies behind our marketing, we believe we’re in the midst of another transformation of our company.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.