1-800-Flowers in Facebook bot deal

1-800-FLOWERS CEO Chris McCann.

By GREGORY ZELLER //

Special delivery from 1-800-Flowers: The national retailer has launched an automated “chatbot” that can answer questions, make gift suggestions and process orders through Facebook Messenger.

The latest floral first from the Carle Place-based gifting giant was among the big announcements at F8, Facebook’s global developer conference, held this week in San Francisco. 1-800-Flowers is one of two online-shopping stalwarts earning Facebook chatbots; Faceboook Messenger users can also access an automated personal shopper through the mobile shopping app Spring.

The selection of its first chatbot-enabled retailers was a careful play for Facebook executives, who are trying to construct a modern web “portal” – a massive digital ecosystem that keeps users within its walls, akin to the original AOL model – and see Messenger-based assistants as a primary channel for online retailing, potentially surpassing even the ubiquitous 800 number.

“You never have to call 1-800-Flowers again,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the F8 conference.

 1-800-Flowers Vice President Jon Mandell

1-800-Flowers Vice President Jon Mandell

While he’s not likely to adopt that as a new company slogan, 1-800-Flowers Vice President Jon Mandell said the national retailer was expecting big things from the sales-tech innovation.

“We made a big step this week in helping our customers deliver a smile, and this is just the beginning,” Mandell told Innovate LI.

While 1-800-Flowers’ internal IT team contributed to the development process – including leveraging the company’s proprietary software-building applications – the “bot that is live on Messenger today” was actually built by Assist, a San Francisco-based chatbot maker and “incredible partner,” according to Mandell. Assist has also assisted such major league organizations as Foursquare Labs, Uber and StubHub.

1-800-Flowers’ customers can still choose to speak with a human service agent, Mandell noted, though programmers from the retailer’s internal team and Assist worked hard to incorporate “natural language” protocols into the chatbot – creating more of an intuitive, interactive concierge that can “understand our customers’ needs in the many ways they may wish to articulate them.”

“We have a perfect blend of human touch for those who need it, alongside the ease and efficiency of the commerce bot,” Mandell added.

1-800-Flowers President Chris McCann – who elaborates on his company’s Facebook strategy here – said the innovation was ultimately about “taking our customer experience to a new level.”

“(We’re) always keeping our finger on the pulse of new and emerging technologies,” McCann said in a statement. “We are continuously introducing new innovations to help our customers deliver a smile.”

The other retail-focused Facebook Messenger chatbot introduced at F8, tied to the mobile shopping app Spring, asks users a series of multiple-choice questions to define their search parameters. When they come upon the right gender, type of garment, size and price, they’re directed to Spring’s mobile website – preloaded into Facebook’s browser – to seal the deal.

The 1-800-Flowers chatbot boasts some additional bells and whistles also. In addition to making suggestions and taking orders, it can also send shipping updates and store important dates entered by the user, sending gift reminders as necessary.

But as the flowery chatbot stretches its legs, by far its No. 1 feature will be ordering convenience, according to Mandell.

“Customers can place an order in a matter of minutes, all within the Messenger platform,” said the VP, who heads the retailer’s multi-brand marketing operations. “It is important for us to provide the best customer experience, and our new bot in Messenger makes placing an order easy.”