How one retailer is shifting to an AI-first mentality

Mobile has completely disrupted the retail landscape, giving rise to new shopping behaviors and advancements, such as voice shopping and artificial intelligence. While this has created challenges, it has also provided opportunities to connect with people in more personalized ways. 1-800-Flowers.com, a longtime innovator on the frontlines of technology and customer service, is meeting these challenges head-on. It’s swapping high IQs for high LQs—that’s learning quotient—and enhancing the one-on-one customer relationships that are part of its DNA. To better understand how the 42-year-old retailer is navigating mobile’s impact, I sat down with CMO Amit Shah, who shared how the company is betting big on tech to create seamless experiences for today’s cross-device customers.

Therese Parkes: You started as a local shop and a phone number. How has your relationship with customers evolved with all the new channels and shopping surfaces?

Amit Shah: If you think about our original shop in New York, which opened more than 40 years ago, it was all about personal relationships. Someone would walk in and have a conversation with our founder, Jim McCann: “Hey, Aunt Sally is in the hospital. I’m going to visit her and I need some flowers.”

Everything that we’re seeing flourish today—mobile, voice assistants, machine learning, AI—it’s all taking us right back to our DNA of having one-on-one relationships with customers. How can we help our customers tell us what they need and decrease their time to that outcome?

How do you focus your team on those outcomes?

Two or three decades ago, everyone hired for IQ. The thinking was, “if we hire the smartest people, we’ll make the smartest decisions, and so we’ll provide incredible customer experiences.” Then we had the evolution to emotional quotient, EQ. Now there’s another swing of the pendulum, and 1-800-Flowers.com is heavily investing in LQ: learning quotient.

We’re building up a muscle memory organizationally to become better problem solvers and to create the disruptions that our customers expect.

The half-life of knowledge around us has shrunk tremendously. To keep up, we have to build a cross-functional team of people who are incentivized and evaluated along a learning framework. Setting up feedback loops, for example, is a high-LQ talent.

Over time we’re building up a muscle memory organizationally to become better problem solvers and to create the disruptions that our customers expect. That is where the next competitive advantage will lie.

How is artificial intelligence helping?

Gift-giving is a two-party outcome: not just a buyer but a recipient as well. One day you might come to our site to buy flowers for your significant other for Valentine’s Day, but the next you might be there to purchase a gift for a colleague who got promoted. So the level of complexity is high; we have to have a very good understanding of predictive outcomes and meta-signals versus personalized signals.

We can see that Google has invested an enormous amount of talent and resources to really make AI accessible at scale and share the impact with our mutual customers. We want to be an AI-first company, so it’s natural for us to partner with Google, which is doubling down on that piece.

The level of complexity is high; we have to have a very good understanding of predictive outcomes and meta-signals versus personalized signals.

Are you bullish on voice assistants?

The volume of engagement we see already suggests that conversational commerce is not a horizon outcome. Customers are shopping with their voice now.

Nuances are especially important in voice commerce. These platforms are inherently learning media; they learn over time what your preferences are, how you like to voice shop, and even how you like to be greeted.

And that’s good for us, because it is very difficult, competitively, for someone else to come and copy that learned experience. You can’t copy what we know about whether it’s a better experience for the customer if we say “hello” or “hi,” or whether to use a female-sounding or male-sounding voice.

How do your investments in voice assistants compare with your investments in other channels?

Our job is not to tell people they have to call us or visit us in a certain way, but to actually be where they’ve chosen to be. We are focused on making it a one-stop shopping experience, whenever, wherever, however the customer decides.  

For example, on Shopping Actions with Google Express, you can buy something from Costco for yourself and, at the same time, use voice actions to deliver a gift from 1-800-Flowers.com to your niece who is graduating high school—and check out with everything all at once.

We are focused on making it a one-stop shopping experience, whenever, wherever, however the customer decides.

Our goal is to remove all the drag coefficients between you and your purchase. From the customer’s point of view, it provides a very seamless multichannel and multi-mindset experience.

What happens next?

Customer expectations and the customer evolutionary cycle are definitely going through a step change. Our customers, in a good way, continue to be more demanding day by day.

As we go forward, we also keep going back to our roots in the magic of those one-on-one conversations with our customers. These innovative tools are letting us reimagine new ways to bring that magic to life.

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