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Grocer Lidl rolls out natural language chatbot to improve customer experience

The German supermarket has unveiled a natural language chatbot to offer customers information about wines

Lidl has introduced an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot to help improve the wine-buying experience for shoppers, as the food retailer continues its efforts to wrest market share away from the big four supermarket chains.

The German supermarket chain, which is the eighth larger grocer in the UK, with 690 stores, created the platform in partnership with call centre software provider Aspect. The chatbot, named Margot, was launched on 31 January through the Facebook Messenger application.

The project took 12 weeks from the initial concept to the release of the chatbot to customers. It uses conversational language to advise users in their wine selection. It can factor in pricing and origin, or match a wine with a type of food.

Margot can also provide explanations about the difference between New World and Old World wines, or what makes wine sweet, and offers interactive quizzes.

Alex Murray, digital director at Lidl, said it had chosen to explore this concept because many customers struggle with the nuances of different types of wine.

“If you go into any supermarket, you’re faced with this massive wall of wine and no really easy way of deciding what to choose,” he said.

“We were just trying to think of a really convenient way to help customers who’ve got these questions, either in-store or at home – what we could do to help them navigate the world of wine, which, for most people, is pretty confusing.”

The chatbot uses Aspect’s natural language understanding, which Murray said is a crucial technology for the service, and guards against Margot coming across as “functional and emotionally detached”.

“What I was really interested in for this project was how you can make it feel like you’re having a conversation with somebody who knows about wine and talk to them in normal language, rather than having to press buttons and run through scripts. That’s a bit too IT and not natural for humans.”

Murray said the ability to incorporate natural language was a key consideration for Lidl when choosing to partner with Aspect.

“It was Aspect’s understanding of how language worked that made it stand out from the others. There are so many people at the moment hyping up artificial intelligence and chatbots,” he said.

Read more about chatbots

“Aspect was able to show that it understood about how humans use language, and that was really important – not just having a scripted program, but something that could think about synonyms and different ways of asking the same question.”  

Tobias Goebel, senior director of emerging technologies at Aspect, said customers can request to discuss their question with a member of staff, instead of the AI bot, should they wish. If they ask to “speak to a person”, the Lidl social media staff, who have been monitoring and engaging on the Facebook Messenger channel for years, can step in and take over.

Having staff to deal with the more complex enquiries and AI for the simpler ones allows Lidl to provide “the best of both worlds” for customers and a positive experience overall, said Goebel.

The roll-out of the bot could be considered an example of Lidl embracing the use of technology to support its efforts to take market share from the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

For 2017, the German grocer recorded a 13.6% year-on-year growth, according to market analyst firm Kantar Worldpanel. Its current market share stands at 5%, slightly behind Waitrose’s 5.2%.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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