The North Face Testing Watson-Powered Virtual Personal Shoppers

Is a digital personal assistant better than an online search box? The North Face, IBM, and Fluid are betting that Watson can outperform Siri (and Amazon) at e-commerce.

Clothing brand The North Face is taking an unusual approach to boosting their e-commerce sales: They built a digital personal shopper fueled by IBM's Watson platform. The North Face's new app, currently designed as an internal proof-of-concept tool, lets hypothetical customers find particular articles of clothing by asking Watson questions about their shopping needs and travel plans. It's one of the first attempts to use Watson for retail purposes, part of a concerted effort by IBM to seed America's malls, hospitals, and corporate offices with Watson-licensed software.

The North Face's platform, Expert Personal Shopper, was developed by e-commerce strategy firm Fluid. Fluid CEO Kent Deverell says the software will hopefully roll out for real consumer use in the fourth quarter of 2014--and will be used by other retailers besides North Face.

According to an IBM white paper, the Expert Personal Shopper is designed to answer queries like "I am taking my family camping in upstate NY in October and I need a tent. What should I consider?" Deverell told Fast Company that the cloud-based app will first be integrated into the websites of the North Face and other clients, but that they see mobile opportunities as "quite significant" due to the different ways that customers interact with retailers on smartphones.

Not coincidentally, IBM announced on Tuesday that they were investing in Fluid. The terms of the investment (which also includes assistance with product development and intellectual property) were not disclosed, but the acquisition followed Fluid's acquisition of social commerce firm 8thBridge. Both Fluid and IBM are positioning the investment and Expert Personal Shopper launch as an industry first for e-commerce.

It might be an industry first for e-commerce, but the big question is whether consumers will bite. Fluid and IBM's dream of an online engine which makes personalized recommendations for customers is a valuable asset that Amazon doesn't have. At the same time, training customers to ask detailed queries to a website--almost, in a way, teaching them to ask a Siri competitor to help them buy things--will require time and patience on all parties' parts.

Deverell says that while testing did take place with a small group of consumers, neither his firm nor The North Face conducted extensive consumer trials for the proof-of-concept. Fluid says they are currently adding features and functionality to the Expert Personal Shopper prototype for the projected Q4 launch date. Other Fluid clients include Brooks Brothers, Chico's, L.L. Bean, Reebok, and Vans.

[Image: Flickr user Alan C.]

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