Interview: How Walmart's Digital Concierge Service Uses Omnichannel Conversational Commerce To Make Shopping Convenient And Personal
In this interview, Jetblack CEO and co-founder Jenny Fleiss explains how her members-only service aims to revolutionize how people shop by combining the convenience of ecommerce with the customized attention of a personal assistant
As consumer shopping behavior continues to transform, brands search for better ways to meet shoppers wherever they are—which increasingly means on the go, necessitating an omnichannel retail model. Walmart recognized the importance of online yet personalized services, and is accordingly nurturing a digital concierge service called Jetblack in its technology incubator arm, Store No. 8.
Jetblack's mission is to put the joy back into shopping for busy, modern consumers, enabling conversational commerce via voice and text as well as no-box, same-day courier delivery to eliminate the nuisance and waste associated with packages. Ultimately, the retailer's “need it, text it, get it” service focuses on enabling highly personalized, one-to-one shopping experiences to provide the ultimate convenience for shoppers. In this interview for a podcast, PSFK founder Piers Fawkes speaks to Jetblack's CEO and co-founder Jenny Fleiss about how her company accomplishes its goal of combining the convenience of ecommerce with the customized attention of a digital assistant.
Piers: What are some of the broader trends in the retail space shaping the work that you do?
Jenny: There are a lot of changing trends in the retail landscape. Walmart set up this incubator store number eight to explore some of the changes that were very tech-focused.
In particular, Jetblack is focused on conversational commerce. What is conversational commerce? In its simplest form, it's when you walk into a store and have a discussion with the sales clerk about your new hiking hobby and what sneakers might be the most appropriate for that. Technology is enabling that experience to be scalable and to be remote. Text message is one way that can happen—Jetblack offers personal shopping over text. It also incorporates the capability of shopping with your voice.
Text and voice as forms of conversational commerce tie into this idea that shopping is omnichannel. We think of omnichannel as being related to maybe mobile desktop stores in the physical sense, but now it's starting to incorporate these voice and conversational commerce-oriented modalities as well.
So conversational mediums are starting to be used in conjunction with desktop or mobile interfaces?
I think they all piece together to enable shopping to be the most seamless experience for a customer. I might be at my desk and be able to pull up a desktop and a website. Then that's an efficient way to have many options pop up, to shop and discover product details.
Then there might be times when I need to reorder laundry detergent and it's fastest to just text that request. Maybe I need a gift for a child's six‑year‑old birthday and it's easiest to just screenshot a picture of the paperless post invite and text that over to Jetblack. Another time I might be walking past a store and I might want to pop in there and have my child try on a pair of shoes to make sure that they fit.
I think it's about piecing all of these modalities and shopping components together to make the richest, most seamless experience for the consumer.
Tell me more about the consumer. Has there been a shift in behavior?
There are shifts in consumer behavior for sure. Technology is evolving so that it's actually good enough to accommodate more efficient ways for consumers to shop. I think the biggest component driving changes in consumer behavior, however, is that they are busier than ever.
I you look at trends like women working at higher rates than ever before but still having children at a similar rate, that inherently means that everyone is busier. Women are driving the lion's share of shopping and shopping decisions. That places a premium on our time and drives thinking about more efficient ways to arm consumers to shop.
Meanwhile, you have technologies like artificial intelligence that are enabling scalability for the consumer shopping experience—like voice technology and natural language processing. A machine can actually take a voice and interpret it very accurately into a request and service that request in a fairly automated way.
We have technology that's actually at a point where it's ripe and ready to accommodate some of these challenges in a consumer's life, like demands on their time, and to provide a better solution.
Let's delve into the Jetblack experience—explain what the service does and how the product gets to the consumer.
I'll start with the big picture. In addition to this idea of conversational commerce and having that be scalable with technology, we also talked with the consumers and found that to them, shopping had become a chore. It was something they checked off of their to do list as opposed to something that could actually be enjoyable or delightful.
Part of the goal and the mission of the business is to actually think about how can we let a customer be more efficient with their time. Also, can we actually bring back moments of delight and joy, and match a customer with a better product, letting them discover a product in an efficient, useful way, and answer the questions that they have about a given product?
How did Jetblack bring those goals to fruition?
We created Jetblack as a personal shopping service leveraging text and voice. We stock very limited inventory. We pull on pockets of inventory throughout New York City, which is the primary market of focus right now. We pull on inventory from Walmart and Jet. Also, we leverage inventory from stores like Sephora or Sachs or Bluemercury or designer labels if someone wants a designer product. The idea is that we are surfacing the best-fit product for a consumer request.
Then we send a courier out to go shop for and buy that product. No boxes. There's a bag delivery to consumers' homes. If they decide they want to return it, they just leave it either with their doorman or at their home for pickup and we handle the return. We really try to make the shopping experience as easy and as seamless for the customer as possible.
Especially in cities like New York City, there's a need for on‑demand retail or on‑demand requests. What are people requesting through the service?
There's such a range. It's everything from reorders of paper towels and hand soap that you might order on a weekly basis all the way to gifts for hostessing guests or children's birthday parties. It goes all the way to fashion requests where someone might mention that they saw this picture in a magazine and they want that item and just take a photo of that magazine and send it in. They might've seen someone walking down the street with something they like and take a photo and send that in.
We have some people saying, “I need this. What can you get me today for a birthday gift for someone?” We'll service up options we can get today. We handle gift wrapping and a handwritten gift note for you.
I think one trend we're seeing in how consumers shop is that there's a greater expectation for one store to have every product. It's very efficient and convenient that you can shop for such a wide range of products from our service. It means that you have one point of contact. If you need to ask where your order is or look up tracking details of just place your request, it's very convenient to have that one source for everything.
Can you provide an example of how the service works?
One of my favorite use cases is that I went skiing this past spring break with my three children and a couple of them have never been skiing before. I was able to just say, “I need ski apparel for Jake and Julia.” The service already knows my children's ages. They know their sizing. Rather than thinking of all the layers and trying to figure out what size helmet to get for my three‑year‑old's head that would fit, it was all figured out for me. Those items were sent directly to the hotel. I actually didn't have to travel with that extra suitcase for their items.
That's really a strong use case. Could you describe the sophisticated delivery system you have in place that enables Jetblack to get the items to customers quickly?
The courier-style delivery process is a big feature that we found customers wanted to eliminate boxes, which are cumbersome—you have to open them up with a knife or a scissor. Often our customer has children so that's not ideal to have that around kids. You have to break down the boxes. You have to bring them to a recycling bin. This all creates extra work surrounding the shopping experience.
We felt it was important to have these courier style totes. We also identified other details, like people wanted their items aggregated into one delivery as opposed to opening a bag or a box and having one item. That felt wasteful to consumers and just takes extra time.
In order to accommodate that, we filter a logistic system within New York where we have runners both sourcing items throughout the city, but also we have these delivery warehouse hubs where we're aggregating all the items so that we can then most efficiently batch them and deliver them to our customers courier-style.
Right now, the service is really based in New York City. What are the plans for the future?
We launched just about two and a half months ago. We're still scaling up members here. We have a ton of demand in the city. I think there's a real need for it just given the pace of life of consumers. We've already started to think about our plans for the next year and launching other locations in the years to come.
We definitely believe that the service is applicable to every consumer. It might be that there are slightly different models depending on if it's an urban market or a suburban market. We're figuring out what aspects we might want to tweak in terms of how we roll this out in different regions.
It'll be really interesting to see if it's more useful to a consumer in a suburban area compared to an urban location. We're excited for what's to come and the growth potential.
Jetblack's focus on combining customization with convenience is a major way that brands are innovating to meet modern consumers' demands. For more information, see PSFK's report the Shopper Marketing Debrief, or listen to the podcast.