Hands on with Walmart’s new (but buggy) ‘Text to Shop’ feature

Walmart recently introduced a new way to shop: via text. Last month, the retail giant launched its “Text to Shop” experience which allows mobile consumers across both iOS and Android devices to text Walmart the items they want to purchase from either their local stores or Walmart.com, or easily reorder items for pickup, delivery, or shipping. However, the chat experience as it stands today does not come across as fully baked, our tests found. The chatbot said confusing things and the user interface at times was difficult to navigate, despite aiming to be a simpler, text-based shopping experience.

Conversational commerce, or shopping via text, is an area that’s been seeing increased investment over the past couple of years with numerous startups entering the market. Walmart, too, has connections with this space, as its former head of U.S. e-commerce Marc Lore backed a conversational commerce startup, Wizard. And Walmart itself acquired assets from a design tool called Botmock which had built technology that allowed companies to design, prototype, test and deploy conversational commerce applications.

The new “Text to Shop” feature, meanwhile, was built in-house using internal IP in partnership with Walmart’s Global Tech team and was tested with customers ahead of its launch. The beta version was available for around a year’s time before December’s public debut, but had only been accessible on an invite-only basis.

At launch, the “Text to Shop” feature ow customers to shop Walmart’s entire assortment via chat, whether that’s your weekly grocery order from a nearby store or an e-commerce order you want shipped to your home.

Customers more recently began receiving emails to alert them to the fact that “Text to Shop” was newly available, which prompted our tests. The feature was also highlighted in Apple’s announcement of its new Apple Business Connect dashboard, which allows businesses to manage and update their information on Apple Maps. Here, Walmart partnered with Apple so customers who visit the Walmart business listing card on Apple Maps could tap on a “message us” button to get started with a “Text to Shop” session.

In theory, chat-based shopping is supposed to simplify online shopping by bringing it into a more familiar texting interface. But in practice, Walmart’s chatbot made some missteps when we tried it, making for a more cumbersome experience compared with a traditional order placed through the Walmart website or app.

The initial steps in getting started with “Text to Shop” was easy, however, as you just sign into your Walmart account and agree to its terms. The bot then sends you a helpful introduction and some tips on how the system works. It tells you, for example, that you can just type in the names of items you want, like “Great Value Oatmeal” and explains how to set your local store, among other things.

Image Credits: Screenshot of Walmart Text to Shop

But already, it was clear the system would have a few quirks, as it informed you that items you typed in single quotes would serve as commands.

For example, typing ‘Reorder’ with quotes would allow you to buy things again. This seemed like an odd requirement, given that the word “reorder” wouldn’t likely match a product a customer wanted to buy through text-based shopping, or at least, it should be assumed that a text with that word is a command. Plus, it puts an unnecessary burden on the end-user at a time when they’ve just started trying to learn a new system.

In my tests, I ordered a few basic items, like milk, eggs, bread, and water. The system didn’t immediately warn me that I had lingering items in my cart from an online order I had abandoned weeks ago.

The system also doesn’t prompt you upon your first text to choose whether you want to start an order for delivery, pickup or shipping. Instead, it returns a selection of options that match your request. But the way it did so was confusing.

In my test, I typed “2% milk,” and it responded twice with possible options. “OK! 2 % milk, 3 choices coming down” the bot said, followed by a link that takes you to a list. But then it replied again, “These are the closest options I found for 2 % milk,” and offered another list.

After picking an item, you’re instructed to “select one of these options next” which offered choices like “search for pickup,” “search for shipping,” or “search for delivery.”

It would seem that asking the customer how they were shopping should have been the first step, especially if product availability varies by order type. In this test, I chose delivery.

That’s when the bot texted me that I now had 6 things in my cart — a surprise, since I hadn’t remembered my earlier abandoned choices.

That one was on me, though, I admitted. I tapped “View cart” to delete the weeks-old selections. The bot didn’t immediately display the cart. Instead, it responds with your item count and total. You then have to tap a link that follows to view the cart, which pops up in another screen. I expected this to operate like a web version of a Walmart checkout page, the screen was missing obvious tools to delete items or change the quantities, which you would normally find on an e-commerce shopping cart page.

In fact, the interface instructs you to “tap to view, select or remove,” but presents radio buttons to tap and then a “Send” button at the bottom to…well, I don’t know.

How would it know if I was instructing it to show me the item or remove it?, I wondered. And why would I even need to view the item elsewhere, when its full name, photo, quantity, and price are shown here?

Still, I tapped “Send” to remove the old items (which were not the newly-added milk), only to be returned to the main chat screen where I was informed, inaccurately, “Ok, all milk taken out!” Now my cart had 5 things, it said. It had only removed one of my selections.

I tried again, tapping the other 5 items to be removed, and again, the bot responded, “Ok, all milk taken out!”

In reality, the milk was the only item that remained. The bot was wrong.

Image Credits: Screenshot of Walmart Text to Shop

Now, with only the milk remaining (despite the texts to the contrary) the bot asked me what I wanted to do next — maybe view cart or checkout?

This is a very dumb bot, I thought. Does anyone get just milk delivered and nothing else?

I wasn’t ready for that so I tried another query. “Eggs,” I typed. The bot only returned three choices: all Walmart brand large white eggs but in different sizes. Odd, since I know Walmart, like most retailers, has a much larger egg selection.

Image Credits: Screenshot of Walmart Text to Shop

“Organic eggs,” I texted, hoping for better egg options. This worked, and I added Pete and Gerry’s eggs to the cart without hassle. The bot now updated me on my total. My cart had two items, milk and eggs, and my subtotal was $10.40. (I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tell the customer the running price if they don’t ask! Yikes!)

Then I tried something to intentionally confuse the system. Knowing that end-users often don’t play by the script, I scrolled back up to tap “Pickup” instead of “Delivery.” This is the kind of thing a customer might do if they think choosing pickup would offer them a different selection of eggs. But the bot didn’t make that logical leap, asking “sure, what product would you like to search for pickup?”

“Never mind,” I texted. “No problem. Talk to you later,” the bot replied.

I then went to add the next item on my list. “La Crox,” I texted.

“These are the closest options I found for la croix organic eggs for pickup,” the bot answered. Uh? What?


I had clearly confused this bot quite a lot, it seems.

It then texts me a list to view and then asks me to select the delivery method, and then texted the list again. It only returned three La Croix options to choose from. A search in the Walmart app returned 10, however.

This system isn’t useful at all, apparently, unless you enter a very specific choice.

That realization made me dread my next item: bread. I didn’t have a brand in mind, as I usually browse and look for sales on favorite types and brands. I ask for “multigrain bread” and I only have three options shown to me alongside another message telling me I can “search for pickup” or “shipping.” I understand now these delivery choices are apparently texted every time you request an item, rather than the system building you a cart for a particular delivery method. (I didn’t tap these options because I was going to have the items delivered.)

“Checkout,” I then texted — without the single quotes, just like an everyday user would likely do, having forgotten the earlier command syntax that involved using quotes.

And, it worked. You could then select to view the cart or checkout, and through a separate screen, you could book a delivery time.

There were other odd user interface choices here, as well though.

For instance, this screen presented you with an option to change the “quantity” of the selected items, when earlier that wasn’t possible. I tapped the “Change quantity” button (as I’m now rethinking those expensive eggs!). This sent an automated command, to which the system replied “Can you please rephrase that?”

Image Credits: Screenshot of Walmart Text to Shop

I wonder if some of the issues with the bot are because it didn’t know my local store, somehow, even though this is already configured under my Walmart account — which I had authenticated with.

“Set store,” I typed, even using the single quote format.

The bot told me to choose my location and texted me two options. Both were my home street address, without the house number. Both were identical options.

At this point, it feels like the process of ordering a few basic things has become an ordeal and has taken a lot longer than the traditional method of searching in Walmart’s app and adding things to the cart. If conversational commerce like this is the future, I’d say this is very much still a work in progress.

I abandoned the cart and didn’t complete the order.

When I asked Walmart about some of the issues I encountered, wondering if this was all still a beta test, a spokesperson said the company would “continue to refine and optimize Text to Shop to ensure we’re providing the best experience possible for our customers.”

Let’s hope!

Hands on with Walmart’s new (but buggy) ‘Text to Shop’ feature by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

Take Blip lands $70M to grow its omnichannel messaging service

Take Blip, an online messaging platform for businesses, today announced that it raised $70 million in a Series B round led by Warburg Pincus. CEO Roberto Oliveira said that the capital, which brings Take Blip’s total raised to $170 million, will be put toward product development, mergers and acquisitions, and customer acquisition.

Not every customer prefers to text businesses. But a growing number do — at least the according to surveys commissioned by platforms with messaging services to sell. Messaging vendor Avochato found that almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents would switch to a company that messaged rather than called, while Yotpo — an ecommerce marketing company — reports that over half of shoppers want to receive texts from brands.

Questionable though the sources may be, Take Blip’s success is some evidence that there’s demand from the business side. Founded over 20 years ago — in 1999 — by Oliveira, Daniel Costa (head of people), Sérgio Passos (CTO), Marcelo Oliveira, and Antônio Oliveira, Brazil-based Take Blip has evolved into a cloud product that extracts insights from customer-business interactions across channels including WhatsApp, Instagram, Apple Messages for Business, Google Business Chat, and Telegram.

Take Blip

Image Credits: Take Blip

“In the early stages of the internet, 20 years ago, every company needed to have a website because people started to experience the brands online and use Google to search for brands and products,” Oliveira told TechCrunch via email. “What we see now is a new paradigmatic shift towards conversations … People spend time in social conversations online, with friends and family in a seamless dialogue, which Take Blip is trying to replicate for companies … The real value proposition of Blip is to ensure the ability to understand customer feedbacks and enable high-speed evolution.”

Take Blip customers, which include Coca-Cola and Nestlé, get tools to automate conversations with chatbots that can hand off complex issues to customer service reps. As do many other vendors in the messaging space, Take Blip also provides analytics to monitor reps’ performance — a feature with which some might take issue (particularly considering the company retains data for up to five years). But Oliveira argues that it’s necessary to maintain a certain level of service.

“Brands, instead of using their own applications, are migrating to messaging services already used by consumers,” Oliveira said. “Since the beginning of 2020, this movement has increased. With the restrictions on the operation of stores and call centers due to the pandemic, advertisers have been looking for quick solutions that are integrated into the daily lives of the public … The pandemic strengthened the purchase and contracting of services through [our] platform.”

Take Blip recently added new campaign management and user flow analysis tools for creating marketing campaigns on WhatsApp and helping customers optimize their “conversation design” (i.e., dialog flow). Other additions to the platform over the past few months include a mobile app for agents, payments support for conversational commerce, and the Blip Store, a marketplace of extensions, templates, and apps.

“Take Blip helps brands reshape any process in the customer journey — including discovery, marketing, engagement, sales, customer support — leveraging AI technologies and business messaging platforms,” Oliveira said. “Brands can have one-on-one conversations with an infinite flow of interactions with each client … People’s requests, intentions, and desires can be recorded and used to tune [our AI] engine [so that brands] can implement a feedback loop to ensure each new interaction with customers will get better in the future. We use conversational data to create language models [with the goal of] helping our customers understand what they need to improve in their conversational applications to deliver better and better experiences”

Take Blip

Image Credits: Take Blip

The question is whether Take Blip can compete against a growing number of rivals in the omnichannel messaging space. Several are formidable — Glia, MessageBird, and GupShup all have valuations exceeding $1 billion. While Take Blip claims to have 3,000 customers and more than 1,300 employees, economic headwinds including a slowdown in advertising threaten to affect growth.

Oliveira expressed confidence that Take Blip can weather the storm.

“We have more than 240,000 users on our platform, over 50,000 of them are users registered in 2022 … [and we] just crossed over $100 million in annual recurring revenue this quarter. [The company] was bootstrapped and distributed dividends up until 2020,” he said. “We are following this broader slowdown in tech with a lot of attention, refining our financial projections, and being very selective with our investments. At the same time, we are happy with our numbers and the fast growth. One thing that could be an opportunity is to accelerate some acquisition conversations.”

Apple’s iMessage update takes cues from Slack with mentions, pins, threads and more

Apple’s iMessage platform is getting a notable update with the release of iOS 14 and macOS’s Big Sur. At its virtual Worldwide Developer Conference keynote this morning, Apple announced the next version of iMessage will support a number of popular features found in rival messaging apps like Slack or even Facebook’s Messenger, among others. This includes added support for common features like inline replies, pins, and mentions, plus updated customizations for group chats, expanded Memoji, improved search, and more.

With the new inline replies feature, iMessage users in a group chat will be able to respond to specific messages using threads — a feature common to a number of other top messaging apps, including Slack. With inline replies, users can opt to view the replies within the full conversation, or you can opt to view them as their own thread.

To make it easier for other iMessage users to know who a message was meant for in a group chat, iMessage is adding support for Mentions. But unlike the @ mention format on some apps and social platforms, like Twitter, iMessage only requires you type someone’s name — no extra symbol required.

The app will pop up a contact suggestion, which you can then click to select. The person’s name is then highlighted in blue in your text to indicate you’ve directed your comment to them.

The best part, however, is that you’ll be able to configure the Messages app to only notify you when you’ve been directly mentioned in a conversation. That will help you better keep up with busier chats you may have set on mute, without missing anything important.

The design for Group chats has also changed, where now the profile icons for the most recently active people are shown the largest.

Group chats can also be customized with a personal photo or emoji as their main photo. Within the conversation, you’ll see the group members’ profile icons spread out around this main image.

Another new feature, Pinned Conversations, will allow you to keep your most important iMessage chats at the top of the screen. This way, you can more easily jump back into your most frequently accessed conversations, like your BFF or family group chat, for example. But it also gives you a way to quickly continue a conversation with an important contact, like a significant other, spouse, or child, or anyone else you message often.

As new messages arrives in these group chats, they’ll display right at the top of the screen. You can even see the typing indicator appear when someone is texting you.

This feature will be particularly useful for those who primarily and regularly use iMessage to keep track of their conversations, but often miss important messages in a long list of unreads. It also gives you an easy way to reduce screen time, by giving you a single place to quickly make sure you haven’t missed an urgent message, without having to scroll through your list of unreads and catch up.

In addition, Apple is updating its Memoji with 20 new hair and headwear styles, face coverings, and more age options, plus 3 new Memoji stickers (hug, fist bump, and blush).

On Mac, the Messages app will also gain access to the new features including Inline Replies, Pinned Conversations, and Mentions, as well as iMessage’s Message Effects, the ability to customize Memoji, a new photo picker and #images. Apple promises also a revamped Search experience which better organizes results into links, photos, and matching items.

The new features will roll out with the release of iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur later this year.

Messenger Kids rolls out passphrases so kids can initiate friend requests themselves

Facebook is making it easier for kids to add their friends on its under-13 chat app, Messenger Kids. Starting today, the company is rolling out a new feature that will allow kids to request parents’ approval of new contacts. To use the feature, parents will turn on a setting that creates a four-word passphrase that’s used generate these contact requests, the company says.

Parents can opt to use this feature, which is not on by default.

Once enabled, Facebook will randomly generate a four-word phrase that’s uniquely assigned to each child. When the child wants to add a friend to their app’s contacts list in the future, they will show this phrase to the friend to enter in their own app.

Both parents will then receive a contact request from their child – and both have to approve the request before the kids can start chatting. In other words, this doesn’t represent a loosening of the rules around parental approvals – all contact requests still require parents’ explicit attention and confirmation, as before.

However, it does make it easier for kids to friend one another when their parents aren’t Facebook friends themselves. That’s been an issue with the app for some time, and one Facebook first started to address in May when it made a change that finally no longer required parents to be friends, too.

While most parents will at least want to know who their child is texting with, there are plenty of times when parents are friendly with someone on a more casual basis – like through the child’s school or their extracurricular activities. But just because two people are neighbors or fellow soccer moms and dads, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re also Facebook friends.

The change introduced in May allowed parents to do a search for the child’s friend’s parents, then invite them to the app so the kids could connect. But this still required parents to take the initial steps (at the urging of the child, of course). It was also confusing at times, we found when we tried it for ourselves – some parents we connected with couldn’t figure out how the approval process worked, for example.

That being said, it may have helped to give the app’s install base a big boost, along with its expansion outside the U.S. According to data from Sensor Tower, Messenger Kids saw a sizable increase in installs in the beginning of early June and it has just now passed 1.4 million downloads across both iOS and Android. In addition, its daily downloads are around 3x what they were at the end of May.

The passphrase solution will make things a bit easier on parents, because contact requests will be initiated by the kids. Parents will only have to tap a big “Approve” button to confirm the request (or deny it, if the request is inappropriate for some reason.)

The four-word passphrase will only be visible to the child in the Messenger Kids app, and to the parent in their Parent’s Portal.

It’s worth noting that Facebook opted for a passphrase instead of a scannable QR code, as is common in other messaging apps including Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Twitter, for instance. Facebook says this is so kids can exchange the passphrase without the device being present.

Messenger Kids is a controversial app, but its adoption is growing, the data indicates. Parents have been starved for an app like this – one allowing for conversation monitoring (you just install your own copy) and contact approvals. Whether this will actually indoctrinate a new generation of Facebook or Messenger users is more questionable. It’s likely that when kids outgrow Messenger Kids, they’ll still be switching over to Facebook’s Instagram and Snapchat instead.

The passphrase feature is rolling out starting today on the Messenger Kids mobile app.

Messenger Kids launches in Mexico

Messenger Kids, Facebook’s parent-controlled messaging app that lets kids text, call, video chat, and use face filters, has now arrived in Mexico. The launch follows Messenger Kids’ recent expansion outside the U.S., where in June it first became available to users in Canada and Peru. The app in Mexico works the same as it does elsewhere – parents have to approve all the contacts the child is allowed to talk to – whether that’s family members the child knows, like grandma and grandpa, or the child’s friends.

Facebook has consulted with paid advisor Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and others on the development of Messenger Kids’ features focused on principles of social and emotional learning. For example, it recently introduced a section of guidelines that remind kids to “be kind” and “be respectful” and rolled out “kindness stickers” which are meant to encourage more positive emotions when communicating online.

These approaches are meant to help kids learn, from the beginning, better ways of communicating when online. However, it’s still advisable for parents to sit with kids as they practice texting for the first time, in order to talk about what’s appropriate behavior. As kids gets older, parents should continue to spot check their conversations and have discussions about what the child may have done right or wrong.

For example, we use Messenger Kids in our home, and I recently had a conversation about when it’s too early or too late to be placing a video call, after reviewing the chat history. I then adjusted the app’s “bedtime hours” to limit calls to certain daytime hours. This isn’t something you can do with other social apps.

While the app continues to be controversial because of its maker – Facebook is using it to get kids hooked on its products at a young age – there aren’t any real alternatives for parents who want texting apps for kids with parental controls and friend approvals built in. And even if a startup came up with a similar service, it would be hard to compete with Facebook’s scale.

Today, Messenger Kids has over half a million users across iOS and Android, and is continuing to grow with these international expansions.