Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the eCommerce environment. That means there’s unprecedented power to understand your customers – and emerging tools to engage with them more effectively.
From automation to communication to personalization, AI’s impact is well on its way to boundless.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses.
If used improperly (read: unethically), it can quickly turn into a nightmare – especially when it comes to eCommerce.
So, how does one effectively – and in good conscience – leverage AI to the success of a Shopify store? We’re so glad you asked.
The State of AI in 2022
Believe it or not, AI is still in its infancy. Only 23% of businesses use it – giving you a serious strategic advantage if you’re one of them. Especially on the Shopify platform, where apps and services deploying AI are springing up like dandelions, now is the time to take that next step.
How is AI transforming eCommerce forever? Great question. Improvements in product selection, logistics, customer interaction, data collection, predictive analysis… the list goes on.
As an example, you can enhance customer service through virtual assistants and chatbot technology. Letting AI answer customers’ simpler questions leaves the more complex questions for human agents – reducing wait times and providing overall superior customer support. For consumers hesitant to purchase from your store, you can automate abandoned cart inquiries to remind them what they’re missing out on!
We know exactly what you’re thinking:
AI on Shopify? Sign Me Up!
Remember, AI was created to make things easier – and not just finding funny cat videos*. Customer engagement, advertising and marketing, customer service, and more can be managed much more effectively with AI — especially on a powerful, multinational platform like Shopify.
Editor’s Note: I honestly had to ask our writer how AI is tied to finding funny cat videos. After all, I just get them from my mom or search “funny cat videos” if I need a little cheering up, right? Wrong. Here’s what he had to say:
"When you search Youtube, Google, or – if you're feeling chaotic – Bing, your feed is being constantly monitored and tailored. When you click on something, your impact on the site/webpage (duration of stay, where your mouse hovers, how long you stay on a specific portion of the page, etc) is being recorded. Thus, watching cat video X over cat video Y will help the algorithm give you more similar videos to cat video X.
And, of course, cat video X is the funniest cat video of them all. (I can say this safely because I've watched them all)."
God, I love the people who work here. OK – moving on.
Most instances of AI you’ll find in the Shopify ecosystem are delivered via apps – third-party integrations that allow you to kit out your store with basically any function you dare to dream, even if it’s not native to Shopify.
For example, Octane AI not only provides invaluable education to customers*, but also empowers Shopify brands to understand customer needs (even ones you didn’t know were there to begin with!) and effortlessly deliver personalized experiences. They deploy AI in the form of fully customizable quizzes (the fun kind!), which assemble customer data and form individualized recommendations.
*Doooo not ignore the power of consumer education. 🤩
Other popular apps are also using AI to reconfigure what’s possible on the Shopify platform. Signifyd uses machine learning to help you avoid fraud and abuse. Vimeo Create uses AI to create videos out of your static pictures…
But wait, there’s EVEN more — and these are very important considerations before you wade into the waters of AI.
AI Ethics: The Crash Course
There are many caveats to using AI in eCommerce.
(It’s only a nearly uncharted field, saturated with robots. What could possibly go wrong?)
If you’re not just a little concerned, you should be. We’re not talking about cybersecurity issues like bots infiltrating your business (although, that’s always a risk) – we’re talking real ethical nightmares, like racism and sexism, occurring automatically in your online stores.
Unethical AI has always taken headlines by storm. One of the major debacles happened at Amazon. The American technology company used a hiring algorithm to automate the process, leaving humans to choose only from the cream of the crop.
Over a ten year period, hundreds of thousands of applications were sent in, which the algorithm happily sorted through, turning itself into a misogynist.
Editor’s Note: LOL. Because of course it did.
That’s right, the AI learned to bias itself against women. And we ain’t talkin’ microaggressions, either. Its intolerance ran so deep, resumes of applicants who listed “Female Chess Club Captain,” for example, were scrapped instantly.
Because most of the applications over the ten years were from men, the algorithm just learned to select men over women, even if the women were equally (or more) qualified. There were no misogynistic programmers with a vendetta – this conundrum was just a byproduct of AI.
Editor’s Note: Being female, I knew immediately that this thing was more than likely built primarily by men. Not because I hate them or think they’re out to get us (womxn) and deliberately designed the thing to scrap our apps, but because a female programmer absolutely would have thought, “What can I do to prevent this thing from discriminating against people like me?” So, I went to our writer yet again to see what the programmers could have done to keep this from happening:
They could have done MANY things! For instance, you took your time to systematically go over this post, altering anything that could be better for our readers or weeding out things you didn’t think relevant. The programmers of these systems attempt to do the same thing. They can clean the data (label it, refactor it…). They can run simulations to see how the AI system would operate, given certain circumstances. They can constantly monitor the system to check for malfunctions…
They can't necessarily write “ethics” into the code because of the intricate nature of gender (All genders? Just two? Three? How do we define new keywords? Etc.) so they build up parameters associated with the system (if X, do Y).
Your comment on them being mostly, if not all, men is spot on. White cisgender males aged 25-40 in middle-upper class demographics are responsible for most AI systems to date. (It’s changing, but very slowly.) Do they really try to adopt diversified and ethical practices? Not really.
Color me surprised. And in case you were wondering about Amazon’s stance on this whole thing…
OoK, whatever that means – ANYWAY. Back to the post.
Unethical Personalization and You(r Shopify Store)
Now that you’re aware of AI’s potential dark side, you’re probably wondering: How does this affect eCommerce? The ways are many – and they may not be what you’re expecting.
Good eCommerce requires a personal experience. Duh. Personalization is AI’s bread-and-butter. There’s a reason TikTok and Instagram Explore pages are different for each user. AI learns their interests and tastes and customizes their feed accordingly.
A subtle consequence of using AI comes in the form of unethical personalization, which can look like any (or all) of the following:
Being that personalization is one of the top ways to build strong relationships with consumers, it can be tempting to squeeze every little drop of data out of everyone who crosses the threshold of your shop.
Something to be cognizant of, though: You are legally liable for every single one of those data drops. If you mismanage them… boy howdy – at worst, you could be sued for violating consumers’ privacy. At best, you could be accused of just being plain creepy.
We could write an entire post on data security in eCommerce, alone. TL;DR, there’s nothing inherently unethical about using consumer data to make customers’ lives easier and grow your brand. That said, if you’re going to use AI for the purpose of personalization, it’s very, very important that you deeply educate yourself on data security best practices and are transparent about what you’re collecting – and why.
Life in a Bubble
One of the greatest gifts the Digital Age has bestowed upon us is autonomy. Anyone with access to a computer can learn about anything that piques their interest, in no time flat. Online reviews allow us to triangulate feedback about products and services and choose for ourselves where to spend our money. (And just about everyone reads reviews.)
The internet is a massive space. Having robots that get to know our preferences and can help us condense our options (see: AI personalization) can be supremely helpful. BUT what happens when those robots know us too well? Our field of vision becomes progressively more narrow and we fall into something called a filter bubble.
A filter bubble is the intellectual isolation that can occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively assume the information a user would want to see, and then give information to the user according to this assumption…A filter bubble, therefore, can cause users to get significantly less contact with contradicting viewpoints, causing the user to become intellectually isolated.
Personalized search results from Google and personalized news streams from Facebook are two perfect examples of this phenomenon.
In summary: the more a consumer surfs, the less new stuff they’ll see. They’ll be making their own decisions (kind of), but from an extremely small pool of options. Bye, bye autonomy.
When dealing in AI personalization, eCommerce merchants should be careful to balance helpful recommendations with the autonomy of their customers.
Robots with Bad Bias
Using pattern recognition, AI can profile users with lightning speed. That’s good, right?!
Not so fast.
What if it could use all its assimilated data to, say, raise prices for certain users and lower prices for others? If you don’t put stoppers in place to prevent it, AI can legit do that. For example, say your AI recognizes customers from geographical location X as being lower income than those in location Y. Consequently, it essentially price-gouges residents of Y, while consistently showing lower onsite prices and discount ads to residents of X.
The robots are trying to help. (Awh.) They think those with money to spend want to spend all of it with you. They also think the poor plebs of X will be more likely to buy if given a discount.
That’s called AI bias…and in this hypothetical scenario, it wouldn’t just leave customers questioning why in the halibut they’re being charged different prices from their friends – if residents of X catch on, your store’s assumptions about their income or spending habits could be pretty insulting!
TL;DR, check your AI before it wrecks you.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. When those customers write to you demanding to know why and how they’re being profiled by your online store, what will you say? Probably nothing; you’ll go to the app’s programmers to figure out what’s going on. Enter: problem number two.
You simply don’t know how your AI algorithms will learn or operate. Even the smartest minds in the field can’t really pin the tail on the unicorn that is AI. The way your algorithms produce results is simply unobservable — until it’s too late.
Returning to our hypothetical, when those customers reach out in frustration, forcing you to ask the AI’s programmers to explain their system, expect them to respond with a resounding (and alarming), “We have no clue.”
As you blame them for your store’s mishaps, they could turn around and say, “How can you blame us? We programmed the system a certain way, but it learned on its own to behave in another way. We aren’t accountable for its actions.”
Allow us to introduce: problem number three.
In the AI field, there is no accountability.
What does that mean for you, as an eComm merchant? It means, if you choose to use AI, you must consider the fact that everything those robots do is your brand’s responsibility.
Indeed. When it comes to AI ethics, it is crucial to consider the moral landscape of decisions. It’s incumbent upon all business owners to think not just about whether they want to use AI, but also about how.
The Future Of eCommerce and AI
The adage “the future is uncertain” speaks volumes when concerned with the intersection of AI and eCommerce. Everything is perpetually in flux – technology and ethics included – meaning AI is decidedly not a set-it-and-forget-it thing.
But don’t be scared! Luckily, uncertainty by no means suggests impossibility, so long as you’re keeping a finger in the air. (The pointer one, you know, to test the wind…)
That New New
According to Shopify’s 2022 report, the eCommerce space is slated to grow by roughly $11 trillion by 2025. With fewer barriers to entry and more incentives towards digitization, there will inevitably be more online retailers competing for a top spot. Thus, you must find a snazzy way to separate your brand from the new kids on the block (without breaking your own back). Picking up what we’re putting down?
(It’s AI. Use AI.)
Other trends show an upward trajectory of high advertising costs and customers more thoroughly researching brands, causing brand-owners to spend less money on good ol’ fashioned advertising and more on strong brand-building. AI can help with this, as it’s already proven to be a great ally in such efforts. An easy example is SEO optimization, enabling faster data analysis and even automating tasks.
That said, you must utilize the correct AI software in the correct ways, which requires sophisticated planning – and contingencies for if something goes awry. As the eCommerce space continues to explode toward 2025 and beyond, you don’t want to be left behind, drowning in ethical nightmares or faulty systems. Think about how to implement AI first, and then see if it’s feasible for your brand.
Let’s Get It Started!
The best way to get started is by talking to individuals who understand AI ethics and eCommerce. Understanding trends is one thing, but with a complex and seemingly unpredictable technology, it is much too easy to get swept up in the advertised benefits and ignore the irreversible detriments it could bring to your brand.
Furthermore, one of the seemingly less-emphasized notions is innovating the intersection of AI and eCommerce. The space is so vast and intricate, it leaves (even begs) room for a little creativity. You (yes, you!) can be the business to change the name of the game when it comes to using AI on Shopify.
Not just to profile customers, provide chat support, recommend products, and optimize their experience, either. Think bigger and bolder!
AI is good at making the impossible seem practical. As the eCommerce space continues to grow, those who successfully innovate will come out on top. And if you’ve gotten this far, we know you’ll be one of them.