Target and three other retailers have partnered with natural language processing (NLP) startup AddStructure to roll out what an AddStructure co-founder describes as a "white-label" spin on Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant, according to a Chicago Tribune report.
Target already is engaged in a six-to-nine-month pilot program using AddStructure's NLP solution, and the startup also is expected to begin similar pilots next month with L’Oreal, Under Armour and online antiques marketplace 1stdibs.
- AddStructure was one of 10 startups chosen in June to participate in the retailer's Target + TechStars accelerator program.
Natural language processing is a key piece of several new customer-facing technologies, including chatbots, virtual assistant and voice-activated search engines. Simply put, NLP, particularly when combined with machine learning and artificial intelligence components, is the thing that allows them to accomplish what they strive for — accurately interpreting and understanding customers' questions and needs to help them find the products they're looking for, and maybe a few other items that might interest them.
Target is just the latest retailer to take a long look at NLP. Amazon uses some aspects of the technology in its Alexa virtual assistant on its Echo device, or at least in the systems backing up Alexa, and other retailers have been exploring and investing in the technology as well. Etsy just acquired Blackbird Technologies, a company which uses NLP, and Staples is testing a souped-up version of its Easy button that leverages NLP and related schemes.
Target said that it is still working with about half the companies that were selected for the TechStars program, though AddStructure clearly has advanced further than the rest to an actual partnership with the retailer. During the accelerator program, the startup got to work with a Target.com vice president as a mentor and collaborated with three departments within Target to learn more about integrating new technology into a retailer and perfecting its product.
That relationship-building and integration experience could prove valuable to both companies. As Etsy recently demonstrated, retailers may feel the need to own this type of technology, and if they do, they need to know what they are are getting into, and need to understand exactly how it can work within or alongside their existing systems. That's to Target's benefit, while AddStructure gets a close-up glimpse at how its invention really will be put to use by retailers, and what kind of corporate environment it needs to co-exist with. NLP can help change retail, but only if all parties involved can make it a good fit.