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Sometimes a batch of blog posts are like a Rorschach test. You can make what you will of the fuzzy pattern.

OK, I just made that up. But looking back over the past few days, a pattern divined primarily from BloomReach blog posts, is coming into focus: Chat as an e-commerce platform is going to be huge. Not today. Not tomorrow, but in the not-too-distant future.

Here’s why I think so:

  • Apps aren’t going to be the way we shop. You’ve seen the stats: Smartphone users (OK, everybody) spend a ton of time on apps. But, in fact, they spend nearly all that time on just five installed apps, as TechCrunch points out. The chosen apps are different for different people, but TC reasons they likely include social media, games and, not insignificantly, chat. Apps have plenty of challenges for retailers. You need to get consumers to download them. Then you need to get shoppers to use them. Listen to many retailers and what you’ll hear is that, yes, they’ve checked the app box, but they aren’t really sure how to build big-time engagement.
  • Retail expert Carl Boutet told me nearly two years ago (for the Re/code story above) that the go-to mobile shopping platform was likely to be something altogether different from apps. Could that be chat?
  • Why not? For younger digital natives, chat is like breathing and eating. It happens seamlessly throughout the day. Once it took change generations to infiltrate the entire population. “Grandpa doesn’t use email.” Forget that. Tech adoption does not evolve generationally. It evolves quarterly. Facebook is the domain of college kids, then their parents, then the companies that sell stuff to their parents — and the college kids are onto SnapChat. Rinse and repeat.  
  • Consumers in other countries (hint: China) are already knee-deep in chat culture and are already turning to chat platforms, such as WeChat, to do their shopping, as eMarketer and Tech in Asia point out. eMarketer’s report says two-thirds of China’s e-commerce in a recent quarter was conducted on mobile, up from 9 percent just two years earlier. By 2019, the report said, mobile will account for about 75 percent of e-commerce and nearly 25 percent of all retail in China.
  • Chatbots are going to significantly advance the shopping experience for most consumers. Surveys show that consumers today expect personalization. They want the sites they visit to treat them like an old friend. Chatbots will provide a conversational helper, who can respond to a shopper’s intent and refine the recommendations it makes based on that.

So, I’m predicting it: Chat-commerce is on it’s way.

Write that down. Don’t only write it down; keep the note handy and email (or more likely chat with me) five years from now to tell me how wrong, or right, I was.

Where is all this prognosticating coming from? It was sparked by an Associated Press story by my friend Brandon Bailey. The story crystallized what I’ve been thinking since last week when Facebook made its big announcement — the announcement that it was adding a feature to Messenger that would deploy chatbots to help with everything from finding out the weather to finding that perfect floral bouquet.

For starters, let’s take a look at the inkblots that made up my personal Rorschach test. There was the post about the growth in China’s mobile conversion rate. (Hey, if you’re into e-commerce, it’s a big story.) You read about it above. Then came the Facebook announcement. I was grasping at bits and pieces.

Then there was Bailey’s piece, which talks about the growing interest in and deployment of chatbots. E-commerce possibilities are sprinkled throughout. It quotes Activate media and tech consultant Michael Wolf, who notes that chat services are growing faster than traditional social media services, such as Twitter and Facebook.

“And experts say messaging bots can handle a wider range of tasks than apps offered by retailers and other consumer businesses,” the AP’s Bailey wrote. “In part, that’s because bots can recognize a variety of spoken or typed phrases, where apps force users to choose from options on a drop-down menu. Reaching a chatbot can be as simple as clicking a link in an online ad or scanning a boxy bar code with a smartphone camera. A special-purpose app requires a download and often a new account sign-up.”

There are naysayers, of course. (More say nay.) Chatbots aren’t very impressive, they say.

Of course they’re not impressive. The history of technology (and e-commerce) teaches us that new ways of doing old things often don’t catch on until hardware catches up with software. Consumer habits need to catch up with possibilities. Business practices need to catch up with consumer habits. Visionaries need to find profit potential in the personal preferences of consumers, whether those consumers are buying for themselves or for their companies.

There was a time when e-commerce relied on CD-ROMs mailed to shoppers, and a time when shopping took place in walled-off gardens like Prodigy and AOL (known as America Online at the time).  There was a time that buying on Amazon meant you were buying a book, because that’s all the Seattle giant sold. Shopping on your phone once meant dialing an 800-number to order that Oxford shirt and khaki pants you saw in a catalog.

That all seems like a long time ago, as technology and e-commerce hurtle into the digital future. In time, the days when we used individual apps to buy on our smartphones might be added to the list. Only time will tell, but I’m putting my money on Chat-commerce.

Smartphone photo by Jason Howie published under Creative Commons license. Photo of Apple eMac by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.