Online Customer Service: Automation or Human?

AUGUST, 2022

Customer service has been notoriously difficult for retailers to replicate online. Many shoppers choose to shop in physical stores because they want to interact physically with staff. They want to ask questions about a product and use conversations to learn more about recommendations and suggestions.

Are automation and artificial intelligence the way forward?

Technology is now much more accessible (and affordable) than ever before. As a result, even small, independent retailers can use automated technology and artificial intelligence to enhance their retail sites. Perhaps too many retailers are investing in these technologies because they think they should be doing it, rather than considering whether their customers actively want it.

Chatbots have their place – but don’t forget the human touch

We know that almost three in ten shoppers believe that online retail outlets miss the ability to talk to a human, rather than an automated chatbot. Many retailers rely on conversational-style chatbots to meet customer demand, but chatbots often fail to meet customer expectations. If a shopper is dissatisfied with the services they receive via a chatbot, they may chalk it up as a bad experience and fail to complete their transaction, or worse, be left with a bad impression of your business.

By adding the human touch to their website, rather than relying on automated chatbots and algorithms, both John Lewis & Partners and ScS have maintained a consistent level of high customer service standards across their online and offline operations.

Bricks & Mortar vs Online Retail: How to combine online & offline experiences to improve shopping for your customers, Sherwen Studios White Paper

To combat this, many retailers are now making the most of automated chatbots to handle the initial "filtering" of the conversation before handing the customer to a real person who can manage any complaints or answer any queries. By adding the human element to your live chat functionality, you have more opportunities to de-escalate any potential problems before they progress into a complaint stage.

This means that you can have far more control over managing your brands' reputation.

Are CGI solutions the way forward?

Retailers are heavily investing in CGI marketing solutions to help customers make informed purchasing decisions. But often, these investments are in poor quality technology that doesn't correlate to the quality of the product itself.

We asked our respondents if they would be more likely to purchase an item if a retailer incorporated CGI marketing or automation and AI as part of their imagery. Only 10% of respondents said that they would be "much more likely" to purchase online if rendered images were used. This suggests that in reality, shoppers aren't that fussed about the technology if there is no tangible reason for its inclusion.

This provides an indication that if the return on investment isn't giving positive results, retailers could improve their ecommerce performances by prioritising technologies that enable customers to see real-life images of products.

The integration of customer-generated content or independent customer reviews (or links to verified sites such as Trustpilot), can be a more effective way to help shoppers find out more about the quality and accuracy of the item.

We believe that automation has a place within retail when used for a specific purpose.

Bricks & Mortar vs Online Retail: How to combine online & offline experiences to improve shopping for your customers, Sherwen Studios White Paper

In our experience, as digital retail specialists, CGI marketing is a valuable tool, but only if it's used in the right way with the right products. There are some sectors, whereby investment in CGI will struggle to achieve a significant return on investment because customers already feel confident about making a purchase. Shoppers do not need to rely on CGI if an item is relatively low-cost and requires minimal effort to make a return if it is not as expected.

For example, shoppers are happy to purchase clothing online because it requires minimal investment, and online returns are easy to do.

In contrast, big-ticket items require far more thought and due diligence before shoppers feel confident in completing their way along the sales funnel. For furniture, flooring, or even cars, a shopper needs more information than just a product description. They may need to know about the engineering processes more in-depth, images of colour options (especially for personalised items), and they could want 360-degree imagery to set their expectations.

Big-ticket items require significant investment, and shoppers think very carefully about what they need before they make their purchase. They need realistic expectations because big-ticket items are far trickier to return if they do not arrive as described. Therefore, in these circumstances, retailers could see a better return on any CGI technologies investment because it plays a specific role within the purchasing decision.

Our research has confirmed that retailers should consider integrating technology into their websites and retail outlets to help potential customers improve their decision-making criteria.

Bricks & Mortar vs Online Retail: How to combine online & offline experiences to improve shopping for your customers, Sherwen Studios White Paper

Our research has suggested that today's shoppers are open to the inclusion of technology and automation/CGI/artificial intelligence, if it will improve their overall shopping experience.

Customers want to be given the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions. They want confidence that what they're buying will fulfil their needs, and execute its purpose comprehensively. That is true regardless of whether shoppers are purchasing in-store or online.

In our experience, retailers need to think carefully about what they want their CGI to do and its role in the customer shopping experience. Unfortunately, too many retailers are investing in AI technologies because they think they should, rather than solving a specific problem.

There are some fantastic examples of retailers who have invested in automated technologies to benefit their customers.


These apps have proved popular because they provide a specific purpose. They cleverly address customers' concerns and give shoppers the confidence to make their final purchase.

What can we expect to see in the future from retailers?

We anticipate that the use of augmented reality within the retail sphere could be an emerging trend.

Although our research showed that only 10% of customers are interested in CGI marketing as a tool to create imagery, shoppers are far more interested in the capabilities of augmented reality when they can see how it could directly benefit them.

Over 62% of shoppers aged 16-24 and 61% of shoppers aged 25-34, told us that they would actively be more likely to purchase an item online if they could digitally see what it would look like in their own homes. Currently, augmented reality and seeing what an item may look like in your home can only be managed online.

But perhaps in the future, technology will emerge that would allow customers to digitally see what an item would look like in their own home, whilst simultaneously touching and feeling the product in front of them. If this technology becomes readily available, our research has confirmed that almost five in ten shoppers (46.54%) would be much more likely, or somewhat more likely to purchase an item.

For consumer retailers specialising in big-ticket items such as sofas, carpets, or furniture, this increase in buying potential could be significant and provide a high return on investment.

To read more about how retailers can combine online & offline shopping experiences and discover practical suggestions that can have a significant impact on their bottom line, please read our whitepaper.