Artificial Intelligence: It’s Coming to a Mall Near You!


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If you follow retail trends, you know that department stores are in trouble.

As shoppers have headed online and to discount stores, traditional mall department stores are struggling to define their niche and halt falling profits. Many are now focused on creating a better in-store experience in hopes of motivating customers to shop in person.

One of the most interesting customer experience initiatives is coming from Macy’s, which also announced last week that it is closing 100 of its stores.

In 10 of its U.S. locations, Macy’s shoppers can now use artificial intelligencethrough their mobile devices to help them navigate the shopping experience. The “Macy’s on Call” service allows customers to type natural language questions into Macy’s website instead of asking a sales associate. But unlike most online chat tools, this one is powered by IBM’s Watson cognitive computing service. Over time, Watson will learn to give better answers and customize them to specific stores.

Macy’s officials say that by allowing customers to answer basic questions for themselves – like ‘where can I find men’s suits?’ – sales associates will be free to focus on more complex customer requests, improving the customer experience for everyone. In addition, Macy’s is monitoring the ways customers use the service and plans to use that data to add additional features and learn more about store features and services that shoppers like best.

From a customer experience standpoint, this new initiative seems like a step in the right direction. It employs mobile devices that shoppers already use, but in a new way that has the potential to reduce stress and frustration that can be bad for sales. It would appear to be cost effective as well, allowing Macy’s to improve its customer experience without hiring and training additional sales associates.

And it has the potential to help customers find items and even coordinate outfits much more efficiently than a human sales associate could. I for one would be delighted if I could give my virtual shopping companion my wife’s picture and favorite color and have it tell me exactly what to buy her for her birthday!

But as a customer experience consultant, I recognize that artificial intelligence has its limits. We know from our research that more than 50 percent of a customer’s experience is based on emotional factors rather than rational ones. Macy’s artificial intelligence program may do a good job of answering rational questions like where things are located and how much they cost, but it will likely be more limited in its ability to provoke emotions – particularly positive ones that help a company build long-term value and customer loyalty.

A mobile app won’t read facial expressions and visual cues to provide the kind of human interaction that can enhance positive feelings.

That means that Macy’s also must deliver on its promise to have sales associates more available to provide hands-on human help when it’s needed.

In some of the stores testing Macy’s On Call, shoppers can use the service to summon a sales associate. That’s good, because as things stand now, you can easily wander around for five or ten minutes looking for a someone to ring up a purchase. However, the ability to call an associate also creates an expectation that someone will appear. If that doesn’t happen, customers may grow annoyed and frustrated. These negative emotions not only decrease sales, they can destroy long-term value.

When we work with customers to design customer experiences, we recommend that they use customer experience assessments like customer mirrors, to find out how customers feel about their interactions – both on mobile devices and in person. With over half of a customer’s experience driven by emotions, if Macy’s technology solution is going to help the company overcome its financial woes, the emotions it creates need to be good ones.

Will artificial intelligence revolutionize your shopping, or is it just another gimmick? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Find out more about other successful Customer Experiences in our ebook: Unlocking the Hidden Customer Experience. LinkedIn followers can buy for $4.99 with promo code: Hidden50.


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