The North Face hires IBM’s Watson to talk to customers online

December 22, 2015 03:14 PM

Many online merchants invest in advanced site search capabilities, fancy product filtering tools and guided navigation technology to help consumers quickly get to the exact product they desire.

Cold weather gear brand The North Face is trying something new, as it seeks to give online customers a better and more intuitive way to find their dream jacket. It’s testing an online tool based on IBM Watson artificial intelligence technology that allows consumers to skip all searching and navigating, and just tell the retailer the type of product they’re looking for, and for what purpose—similar to how they’d interact with an in-store sales associate.

The new feature North Face is calling XPS, which is built by software developer Fluid and incorporates Watson's cognitive computing technology, ultimately speeds up an online shopping trip by understanding consumers’ natural conversational style to provide personalized shopping advice, North Face says.

Here’s how it works: When U.S. consumers visit, they’ll see a link on the home page that says, “Let IBM Watson be your personal shopper.” Clicking on Try It Now takes consumers to a black screen with large white lettering that says, “Where and when will you be using this jacket?”

One could type, for example, “I’m going on a hiking trip in Tennessee.” The site then asks, “Is this jacket for a man or woman?” Type in “woman” and the site pulls up six recommended jackets that match those parameters. Consumers can either click on one of the products to get more details on why the jacket is well suited for hiking, or drill down more specifically by answering additional questions like, “When are you going?” or “Do you expect it to rain or snow?”

Clicking on “Go to this jacket” will take the customer to the standard product page where they can read reviews or make a purchase as they normally would on the site.

It’s still early, but so far, The North Face is pleased with the results. “What we’ve heard from consumers so far is they are telling us, ‘Hey this is cool!’” says Cal Bouchard, senior of director of e-commerce at North Face. “80% of the people who have used it say they would use it again, and they are spending about two minutes on the tool, which is a good engagement.”

Conversion rate for visits that involve XPS are on par with the conversion rate of the site as a whole, she adds, though she says rates should go up as the retailer learns more about the tool in terms of what consumers are asking for and expecting to see in return.

The North Face would not disclose the cost of the new technology, though Bouchard says the project was funded by the VF Innovation Fund, a fund created by its parent company VF Corp. in 2010 to “drive new ideas that push the boundaries of experimental innovation and encourage associates across VF’s 30 brands to think bigger and bolder.” Since its founding, the VF Innovation fund has paid for hundreds of products across the company, including an initiative with its Eastpak brand that used virtual reality and social media in pop-up shops in London.

With $350.0 million in online sales in 2014, VF Corp. is ranked No. 104 in the Internet Retailer 2015 Top 500 Guide.




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