I don’t know who wants to shop via chatbot, but that hasn’t stopped a range of companies from launching their own virtual assistants dedicated to this task. The latest to hit the scene is the new ShopBot bot (say that three times fast), from eBay. Debuting today on Facebook Messenger, this bot is aimed at helping consumers narrow down the best deals from eBay’s over a billion listings, the company says.
eBay claims that shopping bots can help at times when consumers’ needs aren’t fully met by traditional search engines, and can fill in the gaps where human experts aren’t available.
That could be true in some distant future, but today’s lineup of shopping assistants have felt cumbersome and clunky – you may be chatting with a slightly smarter machine, but not one that can have a true conversation. And it’s not clear that they’re in any way more efficient than performing searches and browsing shopping websites yourself.
That being said, eBay’s ShopBot is powered by A.I. to help it better understand the context of a shopper’s needs, and it has machine learning capabilities that will be improved over time. In other words, the more you (and others) use the bot, the better it will get, eBay claims.
Like most bots, you can kick off your interaction just by saying “hello.” Initially, the bot offers a tutorial of sorts, by texting you some tips about how to interact with it and what it can do.
You then click “start shopping” to get going, and the bot will text back some curated collections to browse for inspiration – like “Women’s Style” or “Editor’s Picks,” for example. You can also just tell the bot what you’re looking for by typing your message below or speaking.
After sending your message, the bot will ask you to narrow down your choices. For instance if you ask about a purse from a particular brand, it will have you click an area of focus, like “shoulder bag” or “satchel.”
After your selection, the bot texts back some of eBay’s listings that match your description, and you can click to view more items like that, or click to view the item directly. The latter will open up eBay in a separate window, so you can read the listing in full.
In reality, it takes several more steps to get to the item in question compared with just typing into a search box on the eBay website, then scrolling through the results while scanning the product thumbnails. These bots, after all, are limited in how many results they can display – and they don’t know the particulars of your search, like if you’re looking for brand-new items or deals, or other details about the product – like whether the bag you want has silver or gold zippers and hardware, for instance.
And telling the bot these details is not as simple as simply looking for them yourself after a search.
However, one area where eBay’s ShopBot bot is more interesting than its rivals is that it can work off a photo. That is, you can text it a picture of what you’re looking for, and it will try to match that with recommendations from its site.
Unfortunately, in testing, this was a hit-or-miss experience. A picture of red wedges returned a mix of other red shoes, but also brown and black shoes that weren’t even wedges – or even the same style of shoe. Pinterest’s visual search engine, for comparison’s sake, not only returned similar shoes, but it also found the exact same shoe thanks to users’ pins. (see above)
Over time, bots may get better at their jobs, but people’s first impressions are that they’re not that useful. This could hurt their progress in the long run, as consumers will ignore their advances, having recalled their earlier stilted interactions and unproductive trials. They may not have a second shot.