Chatbot commerce: Ottawa’s Shopify offering virtual assistant free to merchants

Kit

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Techopia may not yet be run by bots (deep down, we’re paranoid luddites) but Shopify believes it can reduce price barriers to growing a business by giving all of its merchants its first employee for free.

Kit, which Shopify acquired last spring, is an automated assistant that can set up marketing campaigns, re-engage with customers via email, refresh social channels and run reports, all through Facebook Messenger or text message conversations with merchants. Before today, businesses on Shopify had to pay $10 per month for Kit’s services, but the Ottawa e-commerce giant announced today that the firm would make its virtual assistant free to all merchants on its platform.

The value of chatbots, automated assistants and artificial intelligence products and services is not limited to e-commerce. Earlier this week, Apple unveiled its HomePod, an AI-powered speaker system in the same vein as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. Ottawa’s Michael Golubev was an early adopter of chatbots, bringing 3DPrintler.com’s search assistant to the TechCrunch Disrupt stage in 2016.

We joke about Techopia’s bot-dominated future, but media companies have been among early adopters of the technology as a way of personalized, conversational storytelling; the Globe and Mail launched a chatbot primarily to keep readers up to date on developments in last year’s U.S. election. News site Quartz also has a mobile app with a chatbot interface.

Quartz
Quartz's mobile app

In the year since Shopify acquired Kit, the San Francisco-based team has grown from nine to 30. Though the company doesn’t release hard numbers on how many merchants are using Kit, the autonomous marketer has seen a user base increase of 1,000 per cent in the past year according to Michael Perry, Kit’s founder.

Perry says the decision to offer Kit for free is about supporting early-stage merchants who don’t have a lot of start-up capital.

“The reality is, a lot of people who are becoming entrepreneurs are starting out by themselves,” he says. Kit, branded as a virtual employee or colleague, can bring down the price point to market a business, hopefully reducing the entry barrier for new merchants.

Perry says the primary market for Kit is early stage businesses with less than three or four employees, but he believes automated assistants have a role to play in larger firms. He does admit to some surprise, though, seeing some million-dollar firms continue to use the solution for their marketing.

“It astonishes me that a lot of big businesses are using Kit. I think it’s just because of the efficiency.”

Labour market disruption

As cheap and convenient as automated assistants can be for new businesses, the increasing sophistication of chatbots and artificial intelligence has the potential to disrupt labour markets for entry-level positions. If Kit can be your first employee, what about your second, third, and so on?

Perry takes a more holistic view of the business in response to such concerns. He says the goal of Kit is to put merchants in a position to grow their shops and invest money that would be spent on marketing elsewhere in the business. Kit can actually lead to job creation, he argues.

“Their failure rate is much higher because (new merchants) are scattered across... a hundred different worlds,” Perry says. “Hopefully we put their business in a strong enough position so they can go out and hire that sales rep.”

On that note, don’t expect a message from Kit anytime soon asking if you’d like to buy a new pair of headphones. This chatbot doesn’t currently take on customer-targeted sales, though Perry doesn’t rule out adding direct messaging features in the future. Right now, the team’s philosophy holds the merchant-customer relation as a bit sacred.

“We actually still feel like that is a relationship we’d like the merchant to own.”

Kit didn’t exist five years ago, nor any form of automated assistant. Now, Shopify has put the technology at the heart of its offerings, firm in the belief that this technology can spur opportunities for its merchants and businesses. Perry, his team and the wider Shopify organization are intent on riding the rising chatbot tides.

“This is an incredible revolution that we’ve been apart of,” he says. “I think the future is extremely bright for chatbots and the role that we’re going to play in it. So I’m excited about it.”