In some corners of the retail world, the mere utterance of the word “automation” conjures up images of Amazon fulfillment centers buzzing with self-sufficient robots, personal assistant androids that follow shoppers through stores and increasingly sophisticated self-checkout counters. It’s almost an imagined insistence that, if humans are going to be transformationally removed from the retail environment, it better be because there is some crazily futuristic technology to make the leap worth it.
Or so automation pundits thought. But now that consumers are not just familiar but intimate with their smartphones when in stores, retailers have started slowly turning the dial up on automation through other means.
Namely, the smartphone.
The story starts with an unusual partnership between Macy’s, IBM and intelligent engagement firm Satisfi. The three companies announced on Wednesday (July 20) that they had integrated IBM’s artificial intelligence engine dubbed “Watson” into Macy’s mobile webpages. Without downloading an app, Macy’s shoppers can now punch up the Macy’s help page and, à la Siri, speak in English or Spanish to the AI, dubbed “Macy’s On Call.” At the moment, Macy’s On Call is optimized to help shoppers find their way around Macy’s stores with questions like “Where are the women’s shoes?” or even the specific names of products. However, IBM hinted at the potential of even more functionality to come in the future.
“Bringing Watson into a retail store setting presents an opportunity to engage with the consumer on a variety of levels,” David Kenny, general manager of IBM Watson, said in a statement. “This particular use case takes Watson beyond helping consumers evaluate purchasing decisions and influences another, equally important aspect of the in-store experience — ease of use in locating products, facilities and services. As more developer partners like Satisfi continue to build with the technology, we see Watson more frequently being delivered into the hands of consumers, and we’re looking forward to learning more from this pilot with Macy’s and Satisfi.”
Macy’s On Call can perform some other tricks. It can list out a store’s special features or connect shoppers with a personal stylist for a little help, but they all roughly fall into the category of taking interactions consumers used to have with in-store employees and redirecting them to their phones instead. It’s a genius sleight-of-hand trick for retailers that want to dip their toes into the waters of in-store automation without emptying their pockets for, at best, beta models of humanoid robot shopping assistants and other outlandish examples of the unattended retail revolution.
It’s not just Macy’s that has realized smartphones’ potential backdoor into lower labor costs and a more streamlined and customized experience for consumers. JCPenney, CVS and even Mastercard have upgraded their own proprietary apps and mobile webpages in the last few weeks in an attempt to make the act of pulling out a phone in a store not just convenient but also beneficial to the purchasing process.
It’s hard to blame retailers for wanting to pursue automation-esque projects, like Macy’s On Call, considering the expected cost of buying an entire brand’s worth of whatever unit happens to emerge as a market leader. With automation-via-smartphone, the only startup costs are software, and more importantly, consumers have less of a learning curve with emergent in-store AI like Watson when allowed to use their own personal devices.
But for as promising of a development as this shift could be for retailers, it looks the opposite for their employees. The easier merchants make their apps to use and the greater they integrate them into the shopping experience, the more consumers are going to rely on the sales associate in their pocket rather than the one down the aisle. And when consumers no longer need in-store employees, stores might not need them.