Facebook lets retailers sell via its Messenger app

April 12, 2016 03:10 PM

Facebook Inc. today opened up its Messenger app to enable retailers and brands to build chat bots that enable consumers to make purchases and pose customer service questions within the platform. A chat bot is interactive software that uses artificial intelligence to simulate human conversation.

Facebook’s bet is that bots can make the messaging mobile app that more than 900 million users use to communicate with their friends and brands a central hub where consumers interact with retailers, brands and media companies.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the technology at Facebook’s F8 developer conference by showing how a consumer could order flowers from Inc. (No. 57 in the  Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide) within Messenger by sending a note like “order white flowers” to Inc. The bot then offers several options, before asking where to send the flowers to and then asking for the user’s credit card number.  “To order from 1-800-Flowers, you never have to call 1-800-Flowers again,” he said, before adding that Messenger’s e-commerce functionality enables a shopper to make a quick purchase without having to download a retailer’s app.

Facebook wants bots to change the way consumers interact with businesses, said David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products. “We believe that to build a great user experience, bots need to offer a great conversational elements and user interface,” he said.

That means asking a consumer looking to make a purchase within Messenger specific questions that help him find exactly what he’s seeking. For example, he showed how a shoe retailer gives three options for the type of shoes a consumer is looking for—sneakers, loafers or boots. The retailer then offers three price points. Once the consumer makes his selection, the retailer lets the consumer scroll through a tailored selection of products. Once a shopper finds what he is looking for, he can click to an optimized product page within the app, click and make a purchase after entering his payment information.

Staples Inc. agreed to be one of the first merchants to let consumers buy within Messenger because its customers are already using the app, says Faisal Masud, the retailer’s executive vice president, global e-commerce.

“Staples customers are increasingly turning to Messenger to interact with our brand, and by adding these capabilities, we're making it easier for them to connect with us and keep tabs on their order whenever and wherever they want," he says. "We see Messenger as another extension of our omnichannel offering, letting businesses leverage the power of our e-commerce, social media and customer service capabilities to have the best shopping experience possible."

Facebook also announced it will test an ad unit within Messenger, called sponsored messages. It did not immediately respond to a request for additional details about the test.

The new Messenger tools build on Facebook’s opening up Messenger last year to developers and businesses, which, for example, enable consumers to use the app to book a ride through Uber Technologies Inc. or track their clothing order from Everlane Inc. (No. 314 in the 2016 Top 500).

Facebook isn’t the first company to let retailers and other businesses build bots that work within a messaging app. For example, Tencent Holdings Ltd., the Chinese company that operates Asia's WeChat messaging app, for years has enabled WeChat users to communicate with bots to search for jobs or shop for clothes. And business messaging startup Slack Technologies Inc. offers automated services that answer questions or chime into chat rooms to notify members of project updates or impending meetings. However, by virtue of Facebook’s size and popularity, Facebook’s move into the space could drive more retailers and consumers to use the technology. 




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