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Macy’s AI-powered shopping assistant underscores mobile’s growing in-store role

Macy’s is piloting a mobile Web-based artificial intelligence platform that enables shoppers to ask product questions and receive responses, highlighting the growing role that cognitive learning and predictive analytics are playing in the retail industry.

The retailer is currently testing out Macy’s on Call, a service that allows customers to input questions into a mobile browser regarding a store’s inventory, products and facilities and receive customized responses. Macy’s is also hoping to one-up competitors by including Spanish language features in the new IBM Watson-powered service, showcasing how brands can leverage artificial intelligence to cater to wider ranges of mobile shoppers.

“People are busy, and there is a lot of friction inherent in shopping; moreover, people’s wants and expectations are changing,” said Michael Becker, managing partner at mCordis. “Increasingly, many people want personalized, relevant experiences that cater to them, as an individual, on their terms.

“The problem is, traditional marketing approaches and systems do not have the ability to service individuals, at scale, on their terms,” he said. “The data structures and logic systems of existing marketing systems simply do not react fast enough to be of service to the individual in real-time, [unlike] artificial intelligence and machine learning services from suppliers like IBM.

“In the near feature, the want for personalized service will go beyond a want and become an expectation. Being able to offer and support these experiences will not simply create a competitive advantage, but rather will become a competitive necessity.”

AI: The new mobile companion
Macy’s is using IBM Watson’s Satisfi engagement platform to power the new mobile service, which is undergoing a pilot at 10 stores nationwide. Consumers can access Macy’s on Call by entering into their mobile browsers and inputting their location.

Questions can span topics such as store navigation details, product assortment and available in-store services. For example, an individual could ask the platform, “Where is the ladies’ shoe department?” and receive its exact location.

If users are searching for a specific item, they may also input that query into Macy’s on Call to learn that product’s availability and in-store location.

The system will continue to evolve and personalize responses as it learns more about each store’s shoppers. It also aggregates frequently asked questions in its popular searches category.

If individuals want to receive more information regarding a particular store’s available services, such as personal stylist appointments and Buy Online, Pick-Up In Store options, they may also ask Macy’s on Call for help.

Responses are created through an interface that uses IBM Watson’s Natural Language Classifier. The platform enables Macy’s to learn more about the amenities, features and products that resonate most positively with customers.

To facilitate even better customer service experiences, Macy’s also implemented a Spanish language interface for select pilot locations.

Therefore, Spanish speakers can interact with Macy’s on Call in their native language, without having to worry about content and context getting lost in translation.

Macy’s on Call is currently available for shoppers at ten of Macy’s stores, five of which serve as base learning locations, with the remaining five containing another feature that lets consumers request face-to-face assistance from a specialist associate.

The base learning locations include Macy’s Montgomery in Bethesda, MD, Woodbridge, NJ’s Macy’s Woodbridge Center, Portland, OR’s Macy’s Clackamas Town Center, Macy’s Santa Anita in Arcadia, CA, and Macy’s Miami International in Miami, FL.

The Connect @ Macy’s option is live at Macy’s Short Hills in Short Hills, NJ, Buford, GA’s Macy’s Mall of Georgia, Macy’s Lenox Square in Atlanta, North Miami, FL’s Macy’s Aventura and Macy’s Roosevelt Field in Garden City, NY.

The first pilot phase will run through late fall.

Testing new ideas
Macy’s is one of several brands seeking to incorporate AI-based platforms into the bricks-and-mortar retail setting, a feat that will likely be more easily accomplished with the combination of IBM Watson’s cognitive learning tools and Satisfi’s location-based intelligence software.

The first phase of the Macy’s on Call rollout involves applying IBM Watson’s capabilities to three customer-facing categories of the retail environment – products, store layout and services. As the pilot continues, Macy’s will gauge other ways to leverage the technology, with the end goal of tapping IBM Watson’s cohesive dialog capabilities in future iterations.

“To be ready for tomorrow, marketers and retailers must prepare today to be of service to the connected individual,” Mr. Becker said. “It is an imperative that they experiment with a wide range of new user experiences like those offered by Satisfi and others.”

Macy’s is not the only major marketer employing AI-based services in a bid to enhance customer service and fuel sales.

The Weather Company is injecting artificial intelligence into a consumer-facing facet of advertising by enabling marketers including Unilever and Campbell Soup Company to leverage its dynamic Watson Ads unit, which lets users ask questions about the promoted product via voice or text (see story).

Meanwhile, gifts retailer 1800Flowers is cementing its stronghold on mobile commerce with an IBM Watson-powered gift concierge that uses cognitive capabilities to tailor product suggestions for shoppers (see story).

“Macy’s is a leader, and as a leader invests in learning, in innovation, in educating itself and its teams so that it can help mold and shape a future that best services its customers and the overall business,” Mr. Becker said. “Eventually, we’ll no longer be talking about mobile or digital sales, we’ll simply be talking about sales, since every transaction will be influenced in some way by mobile, digital, social and AI and ML-powered experiences.

“It is critical for everyone to understand, however, that that day is not too far off, a few years at best.”