“Conversational commerce” was first identified by Chris Messina in 2015; this concept outlined a future for retail based on messaging and voice interactions via digital platforms. Since then we have seen a proliferation of chatbots and voice-based services that allow us to do everything from ordering a pizza from Dominos to booking a ride with Uber. Conversational commerce and, in particular, chatbots have become almost ubiquitous in retail with many brands taking advantage of the growth in messaging platforms and the growing accessibility of bot technology.
However, recent moves by Amazon have pointed to another emerging trend for retail that could be even more transformative; that of “invisible commerce.” In a simple way, invisible commerce is the completion of a commercial transaction without proactive interaction by the consumer. The convergence of several rapidly advancing technologies (connected people, connected things and services, and artificial intelligence), in combination with a growing acceptance of machine-assisted living, will eventually see invisible commerce become an important part of retail and the economy more broadly.
Whether we like it or not, people are just as connected to the digital world as the smartphones that we use. We may not be tethered by cables or have wireless links to any systems (yet) but, practically, we are now part of the digital world too. Companies have copious amounts of data about our habits and preferences, governments know where we go and what we do (as do companies), our phones know what we look like and sound like (and so much more), and this trend is likely to accelerate as software continues to eat the world.
Connected things and services
The connected things and services that we use incessantly provide the data collection web for organizations to learn more about us and we don’t seem to mind (too much) given the exponential growth in connected devices and services we consume. The devices and services are “shrinking” too—operating in the background, using voice as an interface rather than touch, and becoming passive parts of our other devices.
While it is up for debate how long it will take for the world to experience true artificial intelligence, it is already clear in many cases that the insights generated by our current AI platforms can provide tremendous value to people and organizations. Indeed, AI is currently powering a number of assistant applications that can schedule calendar invites, write meeting notes, plan travel and even hold conversations on your behalf.
Invisible commerce—what does this all mean?
It means that large swathes of our current retail interactions may become invisible or at least partially hidden. Instead of going to the supermarket to buy your weekly groceries, Alexa will use all the data at her disposal to order what you need, and Amazon will ensure that it is all put away nicely before you even get home. Consider this, Alexa will essentially become a host for you in your own home, calculating your needs and delivering them to you while you focus on life.
However, the technical capability will not ultimately determine the success of invisible commerce. Instead, the success will hinge on whether the consumer is willing to embrace invisible commerce. The recent shift toward machine-assisted living could be seen as evidence that we may just be ok with it (eventually). The growth in the use of AI-powered assistants, recommendation engines, and even automated platforms all point to the fact that we are willing to let machines decide some things for us, and I have a hunch that eventually we may not have such a big problem with letting them do the groceries.
All of your retail now belongs to us
Right now, Amazon has a clear advantage when it comes to delivering on the idea of invisible commerce and this advantage won’t go away anytime soon. To get to this position, Amazon has invested heavily in the Alexa suite of products, logistics products such as Amazon Key and its delivery drones, a powerful retail platform, and already has a deep understanding of consumer data and how to generate insights from that data. However, this doesn’t mean that Amazon will eventually “own” all of retail. What it does mean is that retail brands need to look beyond the horizon; conversational commerce is just the beginning, not the end.
Invisible commerce is a trend that synthesizes elements of the “Capgemini Effect” particularly well. Not only is it a manifestation of our increasing proclivity toward machine-assisted living, it is also made possible thanks to the convergence of several rapidly advancing technologies. As such, it is practically inconceivable to imagine a future without it.