Retail

Are Consumers Ready For A Robo-Stylist?

There are many ways to positively describe an outfit. On point, dressed to the nines, stylin’, lookin’ like a million bucks. There are lots of ways to go, depending on your audience.

Not on the list, however, is “Wow, were you dressed by a supercomputer?”

But believe it or not, someday, perhaps even someday soon, being accused of getting an assist from a supercomputer may be less of an insult and more de rigueur for picking clothes. There may be, in the not-too-distant future, a day that, instead of asking, “Who’s your stylist?”, people ask, “What software styles you?”

Or at least such will be the case if the team at IBM working with Watson gets its way.

IBM and Macy’s announced a pair-up last week that will see the Watson machine-learning system roll out a mobile virtual assistant at 10 U.S. department stores mostly located on the East Coast.

So, Watson and Macy’s — peanut butter and jelly (something everyone likes) or peanut butter and onions (something most people think is just plain weird)?

Hard to say until it is in mass circulation, but there are reasons to think it might be more jelly than onions thus far.

 

Watson — About Way More Than Beating Ken Jennings At Jeopardy

Though most typical American consumers know the AI program as the machine that beat humanity at Jeopardy,
playing game shows is more of a sideline business for Watson these days.

“His” real strength, according to IBM, is the ability to understand everyday human language and to combine the information it learns for everyday human locutions with the hundreds and thousands of data streams it is capable of monitoring. In short, Watson was a machine born to take the friction and mystery out of retail for all involved — the merchants who sell the goods and the consumers who buy them.

“The retail industry, like many others, is awash in structured and unstructured data — from social media to text messages to customer reviews. By tapping into Watson, retailers now have the power to turn this data into meaningful insights that can make the shopping experience more intuitive, informed and enjoyable,” noted Stephen Gold, VP of IBM Watson’s business development and partner program.

Watson has been making the retail rounds for much of 2016, with its biggest headlining partnership coming with The North Face. In that extension, Watson is there to help customers who are shopping online better narrow their needs by asking them questions. Consumers who search “jackets” can interact with Watson to tell it more specifically what exactly they want. And that conversation is meant to be based on natural language, as opposed to consumers trying to search using their best guess on what specific keywords will pull up the items they are hunting.

“Instead of being limited to what developers can anticipate about consumers and how they are searching, the motivating idea is that Watson’s only limit is in how users are actually using language. There will be bugs, but that learning curve smooths out. And because of how incredibly powerful the learning AI is, we think it will smooth out pretty quickly,” noted Cal Bouchard, senior director for eCommerce at The North Face.

Macy’s extension of Watson is somewhat different, however, as consumers will be talking to it while they are shopping in real time.

 

Watson Goes ‘On Call’ For Macy’s

“Macy’s On Call,” as designed today, will let consumers type or speak questions about Macy’s merchandise into their phones and get answers in real time. Need to know where the bathroom is? Watson can help. Can’t find jewelry and desperately need some? Watson has your back.

“And, of course, because Watson is learning AI, those answers will be able to become more detailed and helpful over time,” noted Gold. “And, of course, Watson will be able to answer different and colloquial versions of the same questions asked many ways. It is a very powerfully helpful piece of software.”

For Macy’s, the benefits are pretty clear. On a basic level, the easier a store is to navigate, the more likely a business is to convert the consumer. More importantly, as retailers, social media networks, gaming apps and a myriad of other contenders are lining up to compete for the ever-decreasing real estate up for grabs on users’ phones, Macy’s is hoping that its new Watson-powered personal in-store assistant will offer sufficient bait to get customers logging into its mobile offering.

Macy’s further notes that it developed the On Call feature to most clearly align with customer needs and behaviors observable through their mobile use today.

“We really want to allow the customer to self-service these basic questions,” said Serena Potter, Macy’s vice president for digital media strategy. “And that will allow our knowledgeable sales associates to focus on higher-value activities and requests.”

The Watson app also plays well with other upgrades Macy’s has recently made to its integrated mobile experience — improvements that include beacon technology and an Image Search feature, which allows consumers to snap a picture of an outfit in the real world and then use the app to guide them to similar items they can pick up at Macy’s.

“Consumers are using their phones constantly when they are shopping. Going forward, we need to make sure our shopping experience is relevant to that activity,” Potter noted in an email to PYMNTS.

So, will Watson change the way Macy’s consumers shop, and will AI change how we dress ourselves? Maybe or maybe not. But as Alexa is keeping our pantries stocked, Siri is increasingly working hard to help us navigate everything from roads to television viewing options and Facebook is leading the bot revolution (whether we want it or not), one thing seems quite clear: The future will involve a lot of time spent talking to AI.

Will those conversations be fruitful or frustrating? We’ll keep you posted.

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