With smartphones a nearly ubiquitous presence in modern daily life, there are dozens of apps that allow users to shop smarter and faster than ever before. Now, shopping giant Macy’s has announced a partnership with IBM Watson via the intelligent engagement platform Satisfi, use artificial intelligence to solve common shopper woes.
Macy's announced the partnership on Wednesday. The pilot program, "Macy's on Call," allows customers to ask questions about the store's stock and receive personalized answers.
"We really want to allow the customer to self-service these basic questions," Macy's vice president for digital media strategy, Serena Potter, told The Washington Post. "And that will allow our knowledgeable sales associates to focus on higher-value activities and requests."
Macy's anticipates pilot program users asking the app questions like, “Where is the bathroom?” or “Where is the shoe section?”
The department store chain already has an app that allows customers to scan product bar codes and receive more product information. Customers can also take photographs of clothing items they like and use the current app to be directed to similar items, according to the Post.
Macy's has also already tapped into the popularity of smartphones in other ways as well, using Bluetooth technology to send special offers to smartphone users who wish to receive them as they shop in the store.
The IBM Watson partner program is being piloted in 10 stores, most on the East Coast. Store officials expect that the program will learn over time, and tailor answers to the particular location in which the questions are asked. Some locations will feature Spanish language capabilities. Five of the locations allow customers to request sales associate help through the app.
Although Macy's officials like Ms. Potter hope that the "Macy's On Call" app will alleviate pressure on sales associates, they also emphasize the increased customer engagement that they hope to cultivate through the app.
"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," the company's chief growth officer, Peter Sachse, told Forbes. "With an eye towards innovation, we are moving fast to test and scale up pilot programs that help enhance their experience with us."
Macy's is not the only store exploring apps to help customers navigate their shelves. Target, for example, offers the Cartwheel app to help shoppers find their way around. Other stores allow customers to use apps to pay.
Last year, global business consulting group Accenture authored a report that urged businesses to adapt to today's highly digital world. Companies must not only improve software intelligence to make the supply chain more efficient, but also to improve customer service, if they hope to survive in the modern retail market, according to Accenture.
What does this all mean for retail workers?
Currently, there are just under five million retail workers employed in the United States. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is growing about as fast as average for other industries, at about 7 percent per year.
Yet automated retail options such as self-pay kiosks and virtual assistants can help major stores post stronger sales without hiring sales assistants to match. Some have warned that the trend could decrease retail jobs in the future.
"It's just like anything else that develops over time, with retail," Brentt Arcement, the vice president of investor relations for vending machine firm AVT, told the LA Times in 2011. "It's sort of that evolutionary process of what's next."