E-commerce, personalization

Macy’s Inc.’s newest shopping assistant is using artificial intelligence to help shoppers navigate stores.

Today, the retailer will introduce a pilot program called “Macy’s On Call,” a web site that can be accessed on a mobile browser and provides shoppers with answers to basic questions.

Like a rudimentary Google Maps directory for the physical store, the web site — found at macys.com/storehelp — can answer queries related to the shopper’s specific Macy’s location, such as “Where are the women’s restrooms?,” “Where can I find INC shoes?” or “Where can I pick up in the store?”

The answers are powered by IBM’s Watson and its developer partner Satisfi, which is billed as a location-based intelligent engagement platform. It answers questions in a way that mimics human interaction, such as, “Shopping for women’s shoes? Visit women’s shoes in our main store on floor one next to opticals.” Or, “For jewelry purchases, head to the ‘buy online’ pickup counter on floor one next to women’s fine jewelry and watches by the bottom of the escalator.” For price checks, it directs customers to download the Macy’s app.

Shoppers can then select, “Got it! I have another question,” or “That’s not quite right.” The service learns from customer interactions and becomes more accurate over time. It also allows Macy’s more in-depth access to customer needs and searches.

“At Macy’s, we remain focused on identifying, testing and supporting new ideas and approaches that will help elevate service to our customers through technology,” said Macy’s chief growth officer Peter Sachse. He said the program would help Macy’s explore new ways to engage one-on-one with customers in-store.

When WWD tried it before the release, it primarily responded to location-based queries. The question, “What time do you close?” resulted in “Unfortunately, we’re not sure about that. We’re still learning, and we’ll work on getting an answer to this question for future queries.”

And that focus on location was by design, said Serena Potter, Macy’s group vice president of digital media strategy.

Potter said that in talking to in-store teams, Macy’s found employees were helping customers with very basic questions that weren’t necessarily making the best use of the associates’ skills. Additionally, she said, Macy’s for years has been focused on how to best leverage the mobile device that the customer is already using.

When it comes to something simple like finding the location of women’s shoes, she said, “Most likely, the customer would prefer to self-service. That makes for a nicer shopping visit.”

For the first release, the Macy’s On Call pilot will be introduced in 10 test locations in the U.S., and includes a Spanish language feature in select stores. Five of the locations are being treated as “base learning stores,” with the pilot being deployed purely as a customer-led, self-serve service. These locations are: Bethesda, Md.; Woodbridge, N.J.; Portland, Ore.; Arcadia, Calif., and Miami.

The other five locations also allow a customer to request a face-to-face interaction with a Macy’s associate. These are in Short Hills, N.J.; Atlanta and Buford, Ga.; North Miami, Fla. and Garden City, N.Y.

Macy’s is reacting to the reality that shoppers are using mobile phones during the physical shopping experience, doing everything from taking pictures to comparison shopping.

IBM Watson recently worked with The North Face on an online shopping tool and with 1-800-Flowers on an online tool. David Kenny, general manager of IBM Watson, said that as more developer partners such as Satisfi build with the Watson technology, it will “more frequently be delivered into the hands of consumers, and we’re looking forward to learning more from this pilot with Macy’s and Satisfi.”

“Bringing Watson into a retail store setting presents an opportunity to engage with the consumer on a variety of levels,” Kenny said. “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.”

The first phase of this pilot program is expected to continue through fall 2016.