Fashion is an inherently social enterprise. Many looks have been inspired by recommendations from friends or styles sported by strangers or celebrities and shared socially.
And in the age of omnicommerce and social media saturation, the industry is relying on social connections more than ever before to generate buzz, awareness and, ultimately, sales. Increasingly, brands and designers are looking to push their, well, looks on social media, through influencers with thousands of followers and other promotions that use the connective power of social networks like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.
As fashion has gone increasingly social via social media, tech players are starting to get involved in the industry, hoping to offer new capabilities that help consumers find styles they like and make more purchases. Many have invested in finding new ways to make the in-store shopping experience more connected. They include innovations like smart mirrors, which can take photos and upload them online to show styles off to friends, or storefronts that can turn window shopping into an interactive experience.
But mode.ai is one company that is hoping to make Facebook a fashion destination in its own right. Founder Eitan Sharon and his team have used artificial intelligence and built a chatbot, integrated with Facebook’s Messenger, which allows consumers to make purchases directly through the social media site’s chat function. Consumers send messages to mode.ai’s Facebook Messenger account, which sells clothing online, or to retailers with which mode.ai has partnered. Then, the chatbot learns about their style preferences before allowing consumers to make a purchase directly inside the chat.
In a recent interview, Dr. Eitan Sharon and Karen Ouk, mode.ai’s founder and senior vice president of business development, told PYMNTS that the company is partnering with retail merchants and working on other functions to make the future of fashion even more social.
Building The Chatbot
Ouk explained that the smart technology was designed to latch onto fashion’s social extension to help suggest and sell items. She said that often consumers are already discussing what to wear to an event or a night on the town in social channels like Facebook’s Messenger app, which gave Sharon and his team the inspiration to use those same channels to connect and sell directly to consumers.
“From the consumer perspective, it helps them get style inspiration and find what they’re looking for,” Ouk said. “It’s basically a virtual stylist that’s at your fingertips, 24/7, and that can make recommendations or help you find the right clothing for a special occasion or anything else.”
But Sharon told PYMNTS that he did not think simply making a sale or even giving a recommendation based on personalized style preferences was enough, because of fashion’s inherent visual elements. Instead, he wanted consumers to be able to make their own suggestions to the smart technology by uploading photos that can analyzed — a much more complex coding conquest than a simple text-based bot application.
“In the field of fashion or clothing retail, text isn’t sufficient. We have to be able to take an image of a piece of clothing or an outfit and identify everything in the image, what it is and where it is, so people can find that look or style based on a photograph,” Sharon said. “We really believe that the visual element is critical for many consumers.”
Along with selling styles and items on mode.ai’s own Facebook page, the company has built a second business model, Ouk noted.
The company also partners with retailers in order to help merchants boost their social media presence and online sales through increased personalization with users, a growing trend among omnicommerce companies.
“On the business side, we’ve built what’s really a B2B2C business, where we partner with retailers to build branded bots to help boost their online business,” she said. “The chatbot is designed to enable these retailers to engage with their consumers in a much more interactive and personalized way.”
The company recently collaborated with teen fashion retailer Rue21 to boost the company’s online business. With declining sales both online and in brick-and-mortar locations, the company was forced to close multiple retail locations and was looking for a way to boost revenue.
“Rue21 was specifically looking for a new way to connect with their customers,” Ouk said. “They had to close stores, and in the absence of a third of their retail locations, they needed to connect with customers in a way that was personalized and could replicate the in-store experience. So we helped them build a bot in under two weeks to try to do that as quickly as possible.”
The collaboration resulted in building a AI bot that can both interact with individual consumers via the Messenger app, she said, and can also be incorporated into an existing conversation between two users. Then the AI can give suggestions based on what they are discussing and enable users to get input from their friends about potential purchases in real time.
Ouk also noted that the company is working on partnering with more fashion retailers in the coming weeks and months.
The Future Of Fashion
As more sales in the fashion industry migrate online, eCommerce is becoming a lynchpin for any modern merchant’s business plan. But while fashion may benefit from its own social DNA, the ability of brands to move products online can be hindered by the nature of online sales.
Customers frequently want to try on clothing before they buy it so they can ensure it fits right and looks good in person. Sharon told PYMNTS that he and his team are aware of these online limitations and are working to address them with future improvements to the company’s chatbot.
Along with finding new retail partners, the company is working on upping the chatbot smart technology with new features. One feature would take a user’s measurements and photographs to build a three-dimensional model of that person. That model could then be used to virtually display different styles in order to help replicate the in-store experience of trying on a potential purchase. The company is also collaborating with Facebook and other social networks to use new advertising and outreach features to help partners better connect with customers and help those customers find new and appealing styles and items.
“It’s really all about taking that retail experience that fashion customers are accustomed to and presenting it in an online and social context,” he said.
Could Facebook soon become the trendiest boutique in fashion? Chatbot says, “Reply hazy, keep asking.”
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