The North Face, IBM And The Quiet eCommerce Game-Changer

Some things go together naturally. A wink and a smile. Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies.

Other things very famously don’t mix well. Oil and water. Fire and gasoline. Peanut butter and tuna fish.

And then, there are the things that don’t exactly interact well or badly, rather it is hard to imagine a situation where they would interact at all or any situation where their interaction would be something typically predictable. Kittens and astroturf. Juice boxes and data analytics. Origami and heavy metal.

Neither natural allies nor enemies. They are something of an odd pairing in a single sentence.

And it seems that two other candidates for the non sequitur pairing list would be Watson and The North Face.

Watson, after all, is IBM’s massively powerful supercomputer, most famous for winning on “Jeopardy!” against the best humanity has to offer. The North Face makes high-end outdoor wear for those who either spend their weekends climbing mountains or who are willing to pay a premium to look as though they spend their weekends climbing mountains.

At first glance, it might be hard to imagine what the people who made a supercomputer that beat Ken Jennings and the people who make a down suit that allows you to sleep comfortably outdoors when it is 40 below would have to talk about with each other. Even the usually innocuous weather might be tricky since computer programmers and mountaineers likely have different definitions of “a nice day outside.”

But a closer glance — particularly at Watson and what “he” was built to do — does a lot to clear up the mystery, because Watson is a supercomputer with a very clear mission: Learn to understand normal human speech and reply with useful information. And The North Face — being the pioneering sorts who think climbing Mt. Everest sounds like a good idea and not an expensive cry for help — is the first big brand to realize that putting the power of Watson into an eCommerce application, specifically its mobile app, might just be a game-changingly good idea.

And if other retailers get the same idea, the competition when it comes to having the best AI-based “conversations” with consumers might really start to get interesting.


A Long Time In The Making

The North Face — in partnership with eCommerce strategy and design agency Fluid — built the soon-to-be-released app to allow users to converse with Watson, such that the computer could use consumers’ answers to narrow down their selection and show them only appropriate products. This matters, particularly for a retailer like The North Face, which makes a lot of specialized versions of the same thing. Search “jackets,” and a consumer is going to be stuck scrolling through 350 options. Looking through 350 options on a desktop screen is irritating; on a mobile screen, it just not happening for a majority of consumers.

“The retail industry, like many others, is awash in structured and unstructured data,” noted Stephen Gold, IBM Watson VP of business development and partner program, in a press release. That data can come from an ever-increasing number of streams that are increasingly intersecting with each other. What Watson will allow retailers to do now is pull that data together coherently and provide it filtered for consumers in a way that can make the shopping experience more intuitive, informed and enjoyable.

“What Fluid and The North Face are doing is showing the world how to leverage cognitive technologies to reinvent how brands engage their customers meaningfully over time. And, as market leaders, we think their influence will be invaluable.”

Fluid, the firm that developed and hosts the software running behind the app, is IBM’s favored firm for eCommerce applications for Watson’s AI. IBM is currently an investor in the Oakland-based firm — part of its strategy to help Watson get smarter, faster by going deep in the industry (maximizing Watson’s interactions across verticals and thus its learning opportunities).

The partnership was first announced in late 2014 and, all in, took 12 months to build out the testing phase that began last month.

And though the app is getting its official launch next month, Cal Bouchard, senior director for eCommerce at The North Face, told VentureBeat that Watson is still early in his education.

“It’s probably at a second or third grade level,” she noted.

However, in a follow-up email with PYMNTS, Bouchard further explained that this is actually a representation of Watson’s greatest strength as an asset for eCommerce: its ability to level up over time.

“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.”


How It Works

The Watson-backed app allows users to “talk” — either verbally or by typing in answers — about what it is they are looking to buy. Say one searches “jackets.” The app will start asking questions. Who is the jacket for? What types of activities will it be used for? How old is the user? Where will it be used? What is the weather forecast for the time the jacket is going to be used? The more the user can answer — and, importantly, the more specifically the user can answer — the more Watson has to consider. It then makes its “calcusiderations” and narrows that list of 350 jackets down to the more manageable five or six that a mobile user can quickly swipe through.

Though for sale in both the Apple and Android App Store, The North Face’s app is browser-based and will remain so even when the big, upgraded version drops in April. is a responsive website, and anything that happens in one location (desktop, tablet or phone) carries across all three. The new app, however, will, for the first time, be designed primarily for mobile and adapted for the desktop. That is a change from previous iterations, which started from desktop and integrated to mobile, and is a reflection of the changing tide of consumer traffic, according to Bouchard.

“Web traffic is increasingly coming in from mobile, and though desktop is still winning out in conversions, we think that is a function of friction. It’s just not easy enough to buy on mobile yet, and that is part of what we think we’ll see improvement in as we upgrade with cognitive tech. We are making it easy and intuitive to move through the site.”


Playing To Personalization

Bouchard, for her part, noted that she thinks that the use of Watson will be a game-changer for The North Face and offered Amazon’s Alexa as a point of contrast. That platform does a good job of accessing lots of SKUs quickly and efficiently, she told VentureBeat, but she thinks Watson is doing something else a bit better: getting to know the consumer.

“This is unprecedented,” she said. “No one out there is using this AI Watson technology with natural language question-and-answer with the consumer. We think this is game-changing.”

While we might be hesitant to call anything game-changing a month before it launches, it is certainly clear that, for a retailer like The North Face — with a generally affluent, quite specific and rather particular client base — an AI that could very successfully understand and pitch to a tailored customer profile would be extremely helpful.

And The North Face, of course, is not the only retailer that meets that description, which means it will be interesting to watch if Watson can get a foothold in eCommerce and become a “voice” that consumers become accustomed to talking with when they want to search for products efficiently and quickly. If merchants take it on and enough consumers start to prefer that voice, it would certainly be a game-changer in eCommerce and for IBM.