Macy’s, seeking to liven up its stale in-store experience, is getting a little help from its robot friends.
The company is turning to Watson, IBM’s cognitive intelligence system for Macy’s On Call, a mobile feature hoping to replicate the benefits of an in-store shopping assistant. The tool, accessible under the ‘Help’ section of Macy’s mobile website, is a search field that lets customers ask store-specific locations related to store layout, inventory and facilities.
For instance, a customer can ask the On Call tool if the Macy’s they’re shopping in has a long-sleeved I.N.C. dress in a medium. The technology will then sift through that store’s inventory for items that match the criteria. If there’s a match, it can guide the shopper through the store to where the dress is located. On Call works in Spanish, as well as English.
The roll out phase for the tool, which is powered by engagement platform Satisfi through the mobile web, began last week in 10 locations. The goal is to use Watson’s artificial human intelligence to tailor each shopper’s inquiries to their location, providing smarter and more personalized responses. The tool will not use the Macy’s app, so customers can use it without the burden of an app download.
“We’re focused on testing new ideas that help elevate our customer service through technology,” said Macy’s chief growth officer Peter Sachse.
Macy’s isn’t wrong to assume a sense of urgency when it comes to reforming the customer experience. Sales have been slipping for five consecutive quarters; most recently, in the first quarter of 2016, sales were down 7.4 percent, to $5.8 billion, from the same period last year. In the announcement, Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren said that an emphasis on using technology to improve customer service and mobile shopping functionality was a top priority for the retailer.
“As we rebuild our business for a comeback that we expect will begin later this year, we continue to focus on agility and innovation, moving fast to scale up successful pilots to capture growth opportunities,” said Lundgren. Macy’s plans to have On Call, if successful, exit beta mode in late fall.
Macy’s, along with JCPenney and Nordstrom, has suffered financially as shoppers choose to spend their money and time outside of their sprawling store layouts. To make the shopping experience more manageable, retailers have tested both live chat with human assistants and chat bots, which aren’t yet up to snuff when it comes to interacting with shoppers. Macy’s try with Watson combines cognitive intelligence (which results in responsive, less robotic answers than typical AI chat bots) responses with technology that’s easier to scale than a human task force.
“Consumer expectations for digital information have increased dramatically, and chat is becoming a critical customer service touch point for retailers.” said Jason Goldberg, svp of commerce and content practice at Razorfish. “A Watson-powered artificial agent is a great thing to test. This feels like a really practical use case for cognitive computing.”
Watson has become an appealing solution for retailers looking to provide better service to online customers. The North Face launched a Watson-powered search tool for its coat selection last year, which asked users questions around topics like climate, activity and price range, before returning a series of best-matched results. According to Goldberg, past approaches to a Watson retail tool have felt more gimmicky than Macy’s.
More than just helping Macy’s shoppers find an item in stores, the tool can also point users to customer service offerings they might not otherwise know about, like buy online, pick-up in store capabilities, the MyStylist@Macy’s personal shopper program, and where bathrooms and handicap access are located. On Macy’s end, they’ll also get access to location-specific customer insight, like what products and services are most sought after, and which departments are most trafficked.
“Retailers today pay a steep price for not being completely in touch with their customers,” said Jonas Nwuke, IBM Watson’s platform manager. “By tapping into Watson, retailers like Macy’s have the power to turn their data into meaningful insights that can make the shopping experience more intuitive.”