A year in, Marks & Spencer’s virtual assistant has helped drive £2m in sales

A year since U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer launched a virtual assistant on its website, one of the technology’s developers says it’s saved online sales worth £2 million ($2.5 million) that the company could have otherwise lost.

Since the assistant launched last September, the retailer has left it to handle several features across the site such as when people have trouble with using discount codes on their orders. If someone had an issue using that code, then there was a risk that they could abandon their order as Marks and Spencer had no way of assisting the shopper in those moments prior to the virtual assistant. Now, when someone has entered a code incorrectly twice, the assistant takes them through a series of multiple choice questions to resolve the issue.

This kind of intervention has saved the retailer on otherwise lost sales, said Akash Parmar, enterprise architect at Marks and Spencer. It’s a tiny amount given the business made £5.9 billion ($7.5 billion) in food sales alone last year, but is reflective of how the assistant is starting to influence how people shop online, said Parmar.

“If those people would have abandoned the sale because they couldn’t use the promotional code we may have lost that revenue, so the virtual assistant is helping us prevent those losses,” said Parmar.

Over a quarter of a million customers have used the assistant to date, said Parmar, who said that almost 70 percent of issues were satisfied without needing human intervention. There are 11 of those moments, which trigger the virtual assistant at specific points where the business knows users tend to struggle to work out what to do. If shoppers are having trouble using the Marks and Spencer Sparks loyalty scheme online, for example, then the virtual assistant will pop up and ask them a series of questions to understand what the problem is. It’s the same for refunds, with the business placing the virtual assistant primarily around the checkout process and account pages.

Most of those use cases are coming from desktop even though most (75 percent) of the company’s traffic is from mobile browsers. Still, Marks and Spencer has no plans to extend the virtual assistant to either its app or as a Facebook Messenger chatbot, which is where other retailers like Asos have tested. That could change, however, as the virtual assistant has been built to be able with Facebook and smart speakers in mind should the opportunity arise, said Parmar.

“There are no immediate plans to take the virtual assistant beyond our own site but the technology stack behind it is in such a way that we can switch to different channels like Facebook and voice if we think it’s the right thing for the customer moving forward,” said Parmar.

Virtual assistants are a growing trend in retail as the likes of Marks and Spencer and Asos try to provide faster and more economical ways of encouraging online sales. For Marks & Spencer, the move is part of a wider overhaul of its online presence following the arrival of its first chief digital and data officer Jeremy Pee next month. The business has its own in-house digital innovation team and started working with startup incubator Founders Factory earlier this year.


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