Artificial intelligence has been widely hyped for its potential to transform a broad swath of industries, from cybersecurity to medicine. Now, we might start to get a clearer picture for how it could be used to change the way we shop.
Macy’s announced on Wednesday that it has teamed up with IBM Watson to use artificial intelligence as a customer service tool in 10 of its stores. The retailer dubbed the pilot program “Macy’s On Call,” and it will allow customers to type in questions on their phones and receive answers. Unlike some chatbots that can only regurgitate pre-programmed responses based on keywords, IBM Watson will learn over time to give better answers that are customized to individual stores.
The department store imagines shoppers will use it to ask things like “Where can I find women’s dresses?” or “Where is the restroom located?”
Macy’s experiment is part of an explosion of efforts by retailers to incorporate smartphones into the physical shopping experience. Target, for example, has made a big push around its Cartwheel app, which helps brick-and-mortar shoppers nab discounts and find their way around the aisles. Walmart has created its own mobile payment offering, Walmart Pay, that lives with in its Walmart app.
Macy’s move is an acknowledgment of what a habit it has become for consumers to swipe and tap on their smartphones while they’re on the go. And it’s a bid to figure out how to channel that behavior into an advantage — not a threat — to in-store shopping.
Macy’s said the “On Call” feature was in part shaped by what it already noticed customers are doing within the Macy’s app: One of the most popular features is scanning product bar codes to check the price or get more details about the product.
“We really want to allow the customer to self-service these basic questions,” said Serena Potter, Macy’s vice president for digital media strategy.