In Q2, the number of live chats on Shapermint.com surged 233% to 50,000 chats per month. Shapermint’s investment in an automated chat bot allowed it to answer basic questions and automate 70% of those chats, so it did not have to hire more customer service staff during its sales boom.

With the coronavirus pandemic upending consumer shopping habits, web-only apparel merchant Shapermint is one of the online retailers that benefited from a surge in sales and new customers.

Online sales surged 100% year over year in May, and the retailer hopes to close out 2020 with sales up roughly 45% year over year, says Massimiliano Tirocchi, chief marketing officer and co-founder at Shapermint.

Shapermint, No. 434 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, sells shapewear—body-shaping compression undergarments—from more than a dozen brands, including Miraclesuit, Curveez and Maidenform, as well as a few of its own private-label products.

When the pandemic was first widely spreading in the U.S. in March, consumers were not focused on buying apparel but rather on household essentials, like food, Tirocchi says. But after a few weeks, consumers began shopping for more discretionary purchases, such as apparel, and thinking ahead to what products they would want after stay-at-home orders lifted, he says. In April and May, Shapermint’s traffic and sales began to surge, especially for more comfortable garments, such as leggings and boy shorts, Tirocchi says. This surge is visible in its website traffic as well:

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And with the number of customers doubling, it also had a bump in customer service conversations via its live chat feature. It went from about 15,000 chat interactions a month to about 50,000 a month in April, May and June, Shapermint says.

While this type of bump would have previously been hard to manage and would require hiring more customer service staff, Shapermint was glad it had already invested in automating its live chat.

Shapermint started using chat bot vendor Ada’s live chat in 2018. After months of using the service, the retailer reviewed its live chat conversations and realized that 60% of the questions could be answered automatically and did not need the complexity of human interaction, such as “where is my order?” It decided to then invest in Ada’s automated, artificial intelligence-powered live chat bot to help with more routine questions.

“It’s a big opportunity,” Tirocchi says. “What happens if we can automate questions and really focus on people who are really needing our help. At that moment, it was a really good opportunity for the scale we were seeing and moving forward to be more proactive.”

Shapermint launched “Rachel Mint,” the name of its live chat bot, in September 2019 in anticipation of elevated orders during the holiday season.

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The bot worked well, but it was not an overnight success, he says. Artificial intelligence bots learn over time the more interactions they have, so it took a few months to teach the bot how to answer questions. Plus, Shapermint had to work to have the bot have the same tone as the brand, such as using certain words and phrases like “eeesh!”  and “Don’t be shy!”

Shapermint had to work to have the bot have the same tone as the brand, such as using certain words and phrases like “eeesh!”  and “Don’t be shy!”

Shapermint had to work to have the bot have the same tone as the brand, such as using certain words and phrases like “eeesh!”  and “Don’t be shy!”

The work paid off, Tirocchi says. The customer satisfaction score of using Ada was at 80% in Q1 2020 and grew to 90% satisfaction in Q2 2020, even with the elevated customer service queries. “It’s a really good number and that takes time,” he says. “It’s not something that happens after one day. It’s after working and trying to refine it”

Now, about 70% of Shapermint.com live chats are automated. Tirocchi is thrilled with this number because that means Shapermint’s employees can dedicate more time to more nuanced conversations and connecting with shoppers, he says. Tirocchi says Ada costs based on volume of chats and features that the retailer uses, without revealing more.

It also is training the bot to be more proactive, including initiating chats based on where the shopper is on the website, such as more details about a certain product or size on a product detail page.

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Within the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, 468 retailers use live chat. Many retailers use live chat as another option for consumers to contact that brand, which also allows the customer service agent to multi-task.

Like Shapermint, some merchants use their live chat agents to do more than answer basic questions. Lingerie retailer Bare Necessities, for example, trains its live chat agents to answer questions about fit, which it reports helps bring in incremental dollars.

Shapermint worked to have its bot have the same tone as its brand.

Shapermint worked to have its bot have the same tone as its brand.

Bare Necessities is not alone, as, 80% of retailers say live chat is important to improving their conversion rate, according to a January 2020 Digital Commerce 360 survey of 105 retailers. Plus, within the Top 1000, the median conversion rate for the 468 retailers that have live chat is 2.3%, compared with a 2.2% median for merchants that don’t have live chat. Plus, the media average order value is $156 for merchants that have live chat, compared with a median $125 AOV for those that don’t.

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