IBM Watson to power Staples' 'Easy Button'
In March, the office supplies retailer announced plans to turn its toy “Easy button” into a real device used to reorder supplies, much like Amazon’s Dash buttons, as part of an overhauled ordering system via the website, email, bots and text for its B2B customers.
Eventually, the Watson-enabled system will leverage machine learning to be able to make product and services recommendations based on the customer’s past orders and current needs, the company said.
When Amazon unveiled its Dash program last year, it leapfrogged over Staples’ “Easy” button, a gimmick that did nothing more than parrot “That was easy!” It wasn’t even heavy enough to use as a paperweight.
But the Easy button is primed to turn into something real, thanks to the virtual assistant technology that powers Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana. IBM Watson’s formidable machine learning could help give Staples an edge over longtime rival Office Depot and incoming rival Amazon. While it's unclear how much the Dash easy-order buttons are actually resonating with consumer households, such devices could be especially useful in an office environment.
The B2B space is crucial to both Office Depot and Staples because, unlike their retail operations, sales in that space are strong. Competition is healthy too, and neither the Federal Trade Commission nor the European Union wanted to mess with that — both cited reluctance to introduce antitrust forces into an otherwise robust market as they considered the proposed $6.3 billion acquisition of Office Depot by Staples. In May, a judge ultimately agreed with the FTC’s argument that the merger would hurt business customers, and granted an injunction against the rivals’ plans, effectively ending them.
So, like Pinocchio, the Easy button is now a real boy. Staples has been working to add features such as: speech-to-text capability, the ability to view and playback all requests received from the customer’s Easy Button, a customer service chat feature and a self-monitoring status update program that can notify customers by email if the button isn’t online.
“A critical component of Watson’s technology is engagement, facilitating better interactions between brands and consumers, deepening connections and enhancing how people engage,” Steve Abrams, IBM Watson’s distinguished engineer and vice president of developer advocacy, said in a statement. “Our collaboration with Staples puts cognitive in the palm of the consumer’s hand, streamlining business operations and creating a frictionless customer experience.”
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