The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can artificial intelligence help you find an outfit? Macy’s is giving it a try.

Macy’s at the Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, N.Y. (KEVIN P. COUGHLIN/BLOOMBERG NEWS)
Placeholder while article actions load

Artificial intelligence has been widely hyped for its potential to transform a broad swath of industries, from cybersecurity to medicine. Now, we might start to get a clearer picture for how it could be used to change the way we shop.

Macy’s announced Wednesday that it has teamed up with IBM Watson to use artificial intelligence as a customer service tool in 10 of its stores.  The retailer dubbed the pilot program “Macy’s On Call,” and it will allow customers to type in questions on their phones and receive answers. Unlike some chatbots that can only regurgitate preprogrammed responses based on keywords, IBM Watson will learn over time to give better answers that are customized to individual stores.

The department store imagines shoppers will use it to ask things like “Where can I find women’s dresses?” or “Where is the restroom located?”

Macy’s experiment is part of an explosion of efforts by retailers to incorporate smartphones into the physical shopping experience. Target, for example, has made a big push around its Cartwheel app, which helps bricks-and-mortar shoppers nab discounts and find their way around the aisles. Walmart has created its own mobile payment offering, Walmart Pay, that lives with in its Walmart app.

Macy’s move is an acknowledgment of what a habit it has become for consumers to swipe and tap on their smartphones while they’re on the go. And it’s a bid to figure out how to channel that behavior into an advantage — not a threat — to in-store shopping.

Macy’s said the “On Call” feature was in part shaped by what it already noticed customers are doing within the Macy’s app: One of the most popular features is scanning product bar codes to check the price or get more details about the product.

We really want to allow the customer to self-service these basic questions,” said Serena Potter, Macy’s vice president for digital media strategy. “And that will allow our knowledgeable sales associates to focus on higher-value activities and requests.”

The pilot, which includes Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, will in some markets include a Spanish-language function. Potter said executives will be watching to see what the uptake is for that feature, in part because Macy’s depends so heavily on spending by foreign tourists, especially at its major-city flagship stores.

Macy’s is not the only retailer that is experimenting with some use of artificial intelligence. IBM Watson has already dabbled in using its tools to power other shopping experiences such as a collaboration with outdoor apparel brand North Face on a website that helps shoppers find the right jacket. Users can type in natural-language answers to a host of questions, including “Where and when will you be using this jacket?” and “What activity will you be doing?” Based on the customer’s answers, IBM Watson will serve up some suggested outerwear.

Watson also powers a pilot of a “gift concierge” for, in which users can type in details about who they’re buying a bouquet for and what the occasion is, and the tool will give recommendations.

The idea is that it learns over time,” said Jonas Nwuke, manager of the IBM Watson platform. “It gets better at solving whatever problem it has been pointed at over time.”

Macy’s has also rolled out other ways to try make our phones relevant to the store experience. It has added beacon technology to all of its stores now, in which a low-energy Bluetooth signal is used to send special offers to nearby smartphone users who have opted to receive them. It has also launched an Image Search feature, allowing customers to take a photo with their phone of a piece of clothing and then be directed to similar items that they could buy at Macy’s. Once a standalone app, it has now been folded into Macy’s main app.

More from The Washington Post:

The tiny chip that could power big changes in how you shop

The creators of Siri have made an even better AI

Watson’s next feat: Taking on cancer