Shopping for yourself is hard enough, but buying gifts for someone else can be even more difficult. And with the holidays fast approaching, many of us are now experiencing the anxiety of finding the perfect present.
If you're like me, it seems like the whole process would be easier if I had some sort of artificially intelligent personal shopper to walk me through it. Well now, advances in artificial intelligence are making that idea a reality.
On Monday, outdoor clothing company The North Face announced a partnership with IBM Watson and e-commerce company Fluid to launch a new AI-powered shopping tool to make it easier to find the right item. The new experience is called XPS and uses natural conversation and a dialog-based recommendation engine to help users pick out the jacket that best fits their needs.
Cal Bouchard, e-commerce director at The North Face, said that it's about meeting people where they're at.
"In this day and age, customers demand that e-commerce platforms be intuitive, flexible and responsive...At The North Face, it's important to us that all our consumers have a great experience shopping with us—regardless of how they choose to do so," Bouchard said.
The new experience is powered by a combination of Fluid's Expert Personal Shopper (XPS) software and Watson's natural language processing (NLP) capabilities. Users enter information on when and where they would like to use the jacket, and the tool then asks a series of questions (about factors like location, temperature, gender) to refine the results, in hopes of providing a more relevant set of items.
My experience went something like this: I was first asked when and where I would use the jacket and I entered "Kentucky in the fall." The tool calculated average high and low temperatures (63 degrees F and 44 degrees F respectively), and then asked if this was for a man or women. I entered "man" and it followed that with a selection of jackets and the question of what "sport or activity I would use it for." I entered "hiking" and it continued with questions on whether I thought it might rain or snow, color preferences, and whether I wanted a lightweight or heavyweight jacket.
On the North Face website, there are 142 different jackets just for men. So, the XPS tool, at the very least will help users narrow down what they're looking for. At the completion of my test, XPS gave me six options rated as a medium or high match, and they seemed to make sense.
Lauri Saft, vice president of the IBM Watson ecosystem and partner programs said the XPS tools is aimed at "allowing shoppers to interact with an intuitive interface and see results brought directly to them, rather than having to click through the entire site."
The value add for a company like the North Face is apparent—improve sales by making it easier for customers to find what they're looking for. But, by helping users find the best fit for their needs, Bouchard said they hope to "[maximize] their outdoor experience as well."
This announcement is the latest in an industry that is rushing to capitalize and the untapped value of the data it has and make a better experience for its customers. Whether it's Amazon's Prime Air drone delivery service, or Google's same day delivery service, Express, it's clear we're only beginning to see how next-generation technology will continue to change the way we shop. Other AI tools like visual recognition and voice-powered search will also play a key role.
The XPS tool is in beta and is delivered via IBM's eCommerce solution, but XPS recommendations will improve as the product is used. According to the press release: "Customer engagement averaged two minutes in length; the platform had a 60 percent click-through rate to try product recommendations; and the vast majority of users said they would use it again."
Saft said many other Watson Ecosystem partners are addressing e-commerce with AI as well, including companies like Sellpoints and VineSleuth and they are seeing an increased interest from customers as well.
"Fluid, in partnership with IBM Watson, is currently in talks with several other retailers who have indicated interest in implementing a similar solution to what The North Face now offers," Saft said.
The XPS experience is available to the public now. Try it out here.
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Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.