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Retailers split on potential of messaging apps

Fuelled by a desire to be where their customers are, retailers have shown a growing interest in communicating with and selling to consumers through messaging apps.

Federico Marchetti, CEO of Net-A-Porter, recently told Bloomberg that the designer fashion site will soon let customers buy products through WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app used around the world.

Currently, Net-A-Porter’s personal shoppers use the app to communicate with select customers, and Marchetti did not say how payments will work in future. But it highlights the opportunity many retailers see in the convergence of online chatting and shopping.

So far, however, few messaging tools have managed to replicate the success of WeChat, the immensely popular messaging platform in China which has set the bar for seamless e-commerce transactions.

Facebook’s recent update to its Messenger app reveals there are still many challenges in the space.

In a blog post, Facebook software engineer Abby He explained that brands using Messenger to interact with customers now have the option to block out free-form text, letting customers choose instead from a range of predetermined buttons.

This is because Messenger’s underlying artificial intelligence is not advanced enough to correctly respond to about 70 per cent of users’ queries. Limiting the variety of input text will improve accuracy, according to Facebook.

And while many retailers are undeterred by the current limitations of messaging apps, namely Net-A-Porter, others are skeptical. Everlane, one of the first retailers to adopt Facebook Messenger two years ago, has scaled back its use of the app.

The US-based pureplay fashion retailer will still resolve customer service issues in Messenger, but it will no longer send customers notifications in the app.

“It was a good couple of years, but we’ve decided to stick with what we do best — email,” the retailer informed customers last week.

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