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The rise of ChatGPT: Is this retail’s “stop typing” moment?

Legend has it that one afternoon in the mid-nineties, Bill Gates, when he finally – and belatedly – recognized the enormous value of the internet, walked into a product development building at Microsoft and shouted, “Stop typing!” And in that single moment he reputedly reassigned more than 1,000 developers to begin working on what would soon become Internet Explorer.

I do not know how much of that story is actually true, but we certainly know the truth about the eventual dominance of Internet Explorer. By capitalizing on the hundreds of millions of PCs running Windows operating systems at the time, “IE” eventually became the dominant browser in the business. In 2004, IE owned a staggering 95% of the browser market.

Of course, we also know the truth of IE’s rather rapid decline. In less than a decade, IE market share dropped to less than 25%, and to this day, Microsoft has never regained much traction in the browser market. Microsoft lost its stranglehold on the internet primarily because it failed to anticipate the importance of intuitive, informative and accurate search results. Google’s simple, effective and now nearly ubiquitous search engine drove almost overnight adoption of Google Chrome. And today, in a dramatic reversal of fortune, Chrome owns about 84% market share, compared to just under 9% for Microsoft Bing.

Bill Gates and Microsoft simply missed the mark on search.

In case you haven’t been paying close attention to the constant barrage of technology news lately, it seems some interesting things are once again happening in the world of search. And there’s one bit of search news in particular that I think we should all begin giving some serious attention: ChatGPT.

While it’s been hard to miss all the buzz associated with OpenAI’s new chatbot, if you’re like me, perhaps you have filed these news reports in the “wait to dig in until it means something to retail” file. I know I haven’t had much interest in researching yet another chatbot announcement. Until very recently, that is. And now, after a good bit of digging, I can say with some confidence that if you have been taking a “wait and see” approach with ChatGPT, the time to pay attention may have been yesterday.

This AI-powered natural language processing tool, launched to the public in November, delivers very humanlike conversations via chatbot. And, despite a few significant limitations we’ll discuss shortly, I think ChatGPT just may have the potential to make a massive impact on how people search for, evaluate and purchase products.

Here are a few thoughts on how ChatGPT could impact retail in the very near future:

  • Customer service: ChatGPT can be integrated into a company’s website or mobile app to provide customers with instant and personalized assistance. The model can answer customer inquiries, provide product recommendations, and assist with ordering and returns.
  • Product search: ChatGPT can be used to create a natural language processing (NLP) based search function for a company’s website or mobile app. This allows customers to search for products using natural language, such as “I’m looking for a blue dress in size medium” rather than using specific keywords.
  • Personalized product recommendations: ChatGPT can be used to analyze customer data and make personalized product recommendations. The model can analyze purchase history, browsing behavior, and customer preferences to suggest products that are most likely to be of interest to the customer.
  • Up-selling and cross-selling: ChatGPT can be used to suggest complementary products or services to customers during their shopping experience, increasing the chances of up-selling and cross-selling.
  • Chatbots: ChatGPT can be used to create a chatbot for customer service, which can be integrated into social media platforms, websites, and mobile apps to provide assistance to customers 24/7. 

That seems like a pretty compelling argument, no? I certainly think so. But here’s the thing: It’s not my argument. In fact, I didn’t write a single word of the list above. It was generated by ChatGPT – a machine – in response to me asking the chatbot, “How can ChatGPT be used in a retail company?”

To reiterate, a chatbot gathered, collated and generated those “thoughtful” arguments as to how ChatGPT can be helpful to retailers. I did not add, edit, correct or delete a word, a sentence or a punctuation mark. As a person interested in technology, that blew my mind. As a writer, it terrified me.

So, in a desperate attempt to justify my existence as a content creator capable of stringing thoughts together in a manner far superior to some…chatbot, I began to dig deeper into ChatGPT. I decided to try to prove my worth by helping you understand exactly why I think you need to pay very close attention to yet another one of Elon Musk’s investments.

To begin, I would ask you to think of the chatbots operating today on the vast majority of retail websites. Think of the quality (or lack thereof) of experiences they deliver. Think of the typically stilted, rigid conversation flows. And think of how quickly most of those bots need to pass you off to a human being to deliver more help than they can provide. If your experiences are like mine, I’m guessing most service bots leave you unimpressed.

Next, imagine you are on a home improvement retailer’s website in search of new power tools to help you build a new deck. And imagine how your experience might look if the customer service bot was a ChatGPT bot.

Never mind. You don’t have to imagine it – I did the work for you. I asked ChatGPT to help me understand which tools would help me build a new deck.

My Question
What is the best multi-purpose tool to use for building a wood deck?

ChatGPT’s Answer
When building a wood deck, a multi-purpose tool that can come in handy is a cordless drill. A cordless drill can be used for a variety of tasks such as:

  • Drilling pilot holes for screws and nails: A cordless drill with a variety of drill bits can be used to drill pilot holes for deck screws and nails.
  • Driving screws and nails: A cordless drill with a screwdriver bit or a nail gun attachment can be used to drive screws and nails into the decking and framing.
  • Mixing concrete: A cordless drill with a mixing paddle attachment can be used to mix concrete for the deck’s footings.
  • Sanding: A cordless drill with a sanding attachment can be used to sand the deck surface and edges to remove rough spots and to prepare it for staining or painting.

It’s worth noting that a cordless drill is not the only tool you will need when building a wood deck, but it can be a versatile and convenient tool to have on hand. Other tools you may need include a circular saw, a level, a framing square, a hammer, a measuring tape, a screwdriver, a square, a sawzall (reciprocating saw), and safety gear. It’s always a good idea to consult with a professional or consult the instructions of your decking kit to make sure you have all the necessary tools for the job.

Pretty impressive, right? Before you answer, consider that this is a generic answer generated by an unlicensed demo version of ChatGPT. Then consider how much more detailed the response would be if the answer was delivered by a licensed version of ChatGPT, trained by that home improvement retailer on their specific products and services.

Are you thinking of conversion rates? I know I am.

Let’s try again, this time with running shoes.

My Question
What are the best shoes to buy for a person running a marathon?

ChatGPT’s Answer
When it comes to buying shoes for running a marathon, it’s important to consider factors such as fit, support, and cushioning. Some popular shoe brands for marathon runners include Brooks, ASICS, Nike, and New Balance.

It’s also recommended to try on several different styles and brands to find the one that feels the most comfortable for you. Additionally, it’s important to make sure the shoes you choose are appropriate for your foot type and running style.

It’s always a good idea to consult with a running specialist or sports doctor for personalized advice before making a final decision.

I could go on. I could ask for help shopping for the brands that social media influencers typically recommend. I could ask for help with the sizing of an apparel brand that interests me. I could ask for help selecting the ideal jacket for skiing in below-freezing temperatures. I could definitely go on. But I won’t. I suspect you get the point.

And that point is…conversions. If ChatGPT can overcome a couple of the aforementioned limitations, most notably access to real-time web-based information and protection against bias, this thing could change our world. It could absolutely revolutionize what we expect from internet search results.

But even without real-time web access, ChatGPT has the potential today to transform how shoppers search for products on retail websites. Think of the conversion-driving power of this custom-trained bot serving up highly informed, thoughtful search results, delivered equally well in both written and spoken form (I’m talking to you, Alexa. Alexa! I’m talking to you! Alexa!!!!). Think of the conversion-driving power of delivering customized, intuitive and informative answers to shoppers’ questions...consolidated into human-language responses that don’t require you to click through to five different pages to find the complete answer.

Whether or not those limitations can indeed be overcome, and I think they can (Microsoft just invested $10 billion in OpenAI, ostensibly in hopes of adding real-time web crawling to ChatGPT within Bing), this may indeed be retail’s “stop typing” moment.

So I’ll stop typing now and let you go try it out for yourself.