- Macy's has partnered with IBM's Watson machine learning system and consumer engagement platform Satisfi to roll out a mobile virtual shopping assistant dubbed Macy's On Call under a pilot program involving 10 Macy's department stores, most of them in the eastern U.S.
- Shoppers will be able to ask the On Call assistant natural language questions through their smartphone browsers about navigating the stores to find different departments and brands of products. On Call may answer from pre-programmed search functions, but the artificial intelligence tool also will learn more information with each question asked to better help other users.
- Five of the 10 stores involved in the pilot program will serve as base learning stores, with On Call as a customer self-service tool, but in the other five stores, it will be equipped with a feature that allows shoppers to request help from store employees.
Virtual assistant technology with elements of artificial intelligence and progressive learning capability has the potential to change everything about retail, from how stores are navigated (as with Macy's On Call) to how customers are served and by whom (or what, if you can envision robots roaming the aisles of retail stores someday), and even the process of purchasing or ordering merchandise (if you can imagine Watson or Amazon's Alexa re-stocking your kitchen cupboard upon request.)
For now, Macy’s On Call simply answers store navigation details provided by department, brand and product category. It also offers insight into other in-store services available at each test location—for example, My Stylist@Macy’s personal shoppers and Buy Online, Pickup in Store counters, as well as information on store facilities like restrooms. The Macy's On Call's question-and-answer interface leverages Watson’s Natural Language Classifier tech, and includes Spanish-language translation options at Miami-area pilot locations.
Considering that Macy's has more than 700 stores nationwide, this nevertheless seems like a very small, tentative trial of such an exciting technology. Then again, the retail industry is only at the very beginning of figuring out what this sort of technology can do to help modernize traditional retail stores and processes. All the potential for now is just that—potential. Stores have to determine what the technology can do for their operations, but even more importantly they need to determine how ready customers are to embrace this technology.
While Amazon Echo users might rave about having Alexa at their beck and call at home, will they feel the same about taking Alexa or Watson to the mall on a Saturday afternoon?