jetblack's branding spread on a white desk with phone
Invite-only, subscription-based startup Jetblack is an on-demand service that boasts “lighting fast” delivery and curated recommendations. — Jetblack

Jetblack, the text message-based personal shopping arm of Jet.com, is betting on technology’s human touch to drive sales of everything from paper towels to Gucci bags.

The startup, hatched in Walmart’s Store No. 8 incubator, is tapping artificial intelligence to cull more nuanced insights on what its affluent, New York City-based customers are thinking and even gauge their mood, as it looks to further ease and personalize the buying experience.

AI-fueled conversational commerce is about chatting with shoppers via text and voice commands in more relevant, intuitive and colloquial ways to boost business. And the technology is not just for the likes of a Jetblack, the invite-only, subscription-based startup backed by the financial might of $120 billion Walmart, Jenny Fleiss, CEO, told CO—, following her presentation at the Business of Home’s Future of Home conference this month.

Commerce-geared businesses of all sizes can leverage AI tools like Google’s machine-learning libraries to help bridge the service gap between texting with a bot or customer service agent, and chatting face-to-face with a store associate, she said.

“There’s a lot of tools out there in the public domain that people can build off of that are getting bigger that everyone can benefit from,” said Fleiss, who also co-founded Rent the Runway. “And the more that people start to use them, the better these tools and resources get.”

Indeed, artificial intelligence uses an algorithmic approach to get smarter over time, Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst for eMarketer, told CO—. And “conversational commerce uses AI to help shoppers find the right product for their needs. Its ability to ultimately satisfy the customer depends on correctly interpreting natural language, determining the shoppers’ intent, assessing relevant product attributes and any number of other factors.”

We have data from basic household products all the way to designer products. The data crossing those industries is really fascinating.

Jenny Fleiss, co-founder and CEO, Jetblack

Leverage tech

Jetblack utilizes text messages and artificial intelligence to enable clientele to place quick, easy and curated orders. Read on for more ways technology is transforming the e-commerce world.


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Retail as a service

For growing brands, AI-powered conversational commerce holds the potential to bring a new “service layer” to the customer experience via text or voice, Fleiss said.

Bespoke, on-demand service is at the heart of Jetblack’s “Need it. Text it. Get it” brand promise, which it touts as the easiest way for busy parents to shop, boasting “lighting fast” delivery and curated recommendations.

The model is very of the moment. “Retail-as-a-service is a huge macro trend that’s happening,” said Lipsman. From Amazon’s checkout-free Amazon Go stores to drone-delivered McDonald’s, courtesy of UberEats, companies are tripping over one another to redefine the shopping paradigm with a kind of uber-convenience.

Jetblack is increasingly mining the “conversational attributes of products,” what everyday folks ask about merchandise and the natural language associated with their verbiage, to do just that.

The idea is to answer shopper queries that go beyond the basic product descriptions found in e-commerce filters around size, color and brand, for example, and solve for more complex questions akin to what might be asked a store associate, such as: What’s a good conditioner for curly hair that doesn’t leave a residue? What’s a good gift for a seven-year-old’s birthday party? “There’s a ton of subtlety” embedded in these questions, Fleiss told CO—.

And Jetblack wants to save shoppers the trouble of wading through thousands of search results and the comments section of online shopping sites, or scouring blogs and influencer platforms to find answers, by offering text or voice responses itself.

Jetblack, whose “premium white-glove” model caters exclusively to residents in Manhattan and Brooklyn doormen buildings, knows it has a ways to go before it’s mastered interacting with shoppers in such deeply relevant, idiosyncratic ways.

In Fleiss’s Business of Home session, “The Future of Affluent Consumer Behavior,” a show of hands from audience members revealed that only a few actually shopped via their Amazon Echo or Google Home voice assistants, and she wasn’t surprised. That’s because while 33% of Americans have voice-controlled tech systems in their homes, only 3% use them for shopping, Fleiss said. “We need to become even better.”

 Jenny Fleiss headshot
Jenny Fleiss, co-founder and CEO, Jetblack. — Jetblack

‘Approximating human intelligence’

Artificial intelligence is designed to get smarter over time, but its ability to deliver the right answer is only as good as the data sets on which it’s trained, Lipsman said. “The only way these tools will ever approximate human intelligence is to be trained against lots of real-life customer interactions.”

Fleiss knows this too. That’s why Jetblack is training its teams to scale the data it’s mined from millions of customer conversations, she said.

While AI has improved in interpreting natural language, “where it hasn’t cracked the nut yet is intuiting what you mean when you say something,” Lipsman said. “What do you as a consumer mean as ‘best,’ shampoo for curly hair? ‘Best’ in terms of highest product rating? Cheapest?” he said. “Even the best AI isn’t able to understand the algorithm that is working in your mind.”

 female shopper reaching into jetblack shopping bag
Jetblack is working to deliver consumers more contextually relevant experiences, with a brand promise of “Need it. Text it. Get it." — Jetblack

Informed by three big trends

As Fleiss sees it, conversational commerce mirrors three big trends informing consumer behavior: a hunger for personalized products and services; a craving for experiential shopping journeys with “enjoyable interactions, and maybe something you want to Instagram”; and the expectation that the process is efficient and friction-free for time-starved shoppers. Essentially, “adding ease and convenience to life,” she told CO—.

That’s why Jetblack is working to deliver consumers more contextually relevant experiences. “We’re getting to be more specific to the cadence of when people are buying things,” Fleiss said. “How frequently you’re buying paper towels or soap, tailoring it the number of people in your family, and if you’re going on vacation, knowing that time of year you need fewer products.”

Looking ahead, “There are more advances that can happen around suggesting new types of products that are correlated with things you like, across a broad spectrum of products,” she said.

As Jetblack’s product assortment straddles what’s available at both discount chains and luxury merchants, it collects a unique cross-section of data on shopper buying patterns that other retailers don’t, Fleiss told CO—. “We have data from basic household products all the way to designer products,” she said. “The data crossing those industries is really fascinating.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published September 23, 2019