Virtual Assistant to the rescue – a retail experience

Moving house is the third most traumatic thing after death and divorce, they say… Presumably, those who move often, learn how to ease the pain. But in my case, I had to admit I was a novice in the house-moving game and did not know where to start.

Fortunately, I discovered that one good place to start is IKEA’s website. But much like IKEA’s stores, its website is cavernous and can be a little confusing for first-time visitors.

So I was glad for the help provided by Anna, IKEA’s virtual assistant.

While I have changed address many times in the past, until now it had always been from one furnished apartment to another. Living in furnished property means you can go through life without having to hang curtains, assemble kitchen units or put up shelves.

But this prolonged state of blissful ignorance had now come to an end. Our new home was unfurnished and empty. As we had to move in fast, we needed to rapidly fill it with furniture.

Much has been written about IKEA’s business model and the huge success the Swedish firm has had exporting it globally. I was amazed to see that the mandatory small print for one IKEA product came in 31 languages, including Mandarin, Malaysian and Kazakh.

For us, however, the big attraction of IKEA is that its furniture is organized into product families, containing dozens of coordinated components. This systems-based approach means that with a bit of planning, you can mix and match components and achieve a level of customization that previously was only really possible for hard-core do-it-yourself fans – or by paying a premium for custom built furniture.

However, for us the big downside with IKEA is that its store is over 130km away from our home. A trip to IKEA was thus not an endeavour to be taken lightly and would have to be organized with military precision. This is where Anna came in.

In cyberspace, there are people who derive childish pleasure in asking chatbots questions that they obviously will not understand. Anna has not been immune from this torment – read here for example – but if you stick to topics she does know, she can be surprisingly useful.

First, I wanted to know how to get to the store.

That’s Anna’s most frequently asked question I suspect, and she passed the test with no problems, giving us a link to the Maporama website with directions to get to our nearest IKEA store.

Of course, you can also get this information the traditional way, by going to the menu to select the name of your local store from the drop-down list in the store selector. But the virtual assistant saves the mouse work and comes into its own if you do not know where your nearest store is located.

“What’s for lunch,” I asked, as I knew we would probably end up spending the whole day in IKEA’s store. Anna took us direct to the page showing the restaurant menu for our local store. Now, it was time for the real work to begin.

“Show us some white cupboards,” I asked Anna next.

Again, this was well-trodden territory for Anna and she showed us a product grid with 23 pages of cupboards and related components, each with its thumbnail image, strange Swedish name and all-important dimensions.

You have to manually filter the color rather than have Anna do it for you, but it still saves time over the traditional method which involves drilling down through the top-level menu headings – lounge”, ”bedroom”, “kitchen”, etc.
And so it went on. A list of “must-have” IKEA furniture components was painstaking assembled and Anna told us that it was “highly likely” that they would be available in our local store when we called, so the trip would not be in vain.

A day before the fateful trip, I suddenly realized that some of the shelving units were too big to fit in my car. This presumably is also a fairly common occurrence, so when I asked Anna how much it would cost to have the oversize purchases delivered, she put up the price list for a transport firm.

The trip itself was a success and everything on the wish list was either bought back in the car or delivered later – which is no small feat if you compare it to many shopping expeditions.

Anna is one of the best-known implementations of Artificial Solutions’ virtual assistant technology and once you have interacted with her, it’s not difficult to understand why.

Andy, who lives with his family in the UK, is Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer at Artificial Solutions. A regular speaker at industry conferences and events, Andy delivers insight on the rise of AI, the challenges businesses face and the future of intelligent conversational applications.

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