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NRF 2017: Staples’ Easy Button and Watson help office managers get down to business

January 16, 2017 04:54 PM
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Office supplies retailer Staples Inc. aims to make its well-known Easy Button much more than a desk knickknack. The retailer is testing adding IBM Watson technology to enable office managers to press the button to do everything from re-order coffee to find a printer technician’s number to order pizza for the office, Faisal Masud, chief technology officer for Staples said today in an interview at the National Retail Federation Big Show in New York City.

IBM’s Watson uses an algorithm that learns when it’s exposed to new data, so it does not have to be explicitly programmed by an individual—a process called machine learning—which enables it to engage in a dialogue with people, learning over time how to improve its answers.

Staples is testing the Easy Button technology, which looks a lot like the office version of Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa or Alphabet Inc.’s Google Home, with five businesses in Austin, Texas. It plans to extend the test to more than 100 businesses by the middle of the year and fully roll out the service by the end of the year, Masud says.

In addition to facilitating simpler interactions with customers, cognitive capabilities built into the Easy Button system from IBM Watson and Staples will help Staples learn more about a business’ preferences over time, including its preferred products and quantities. Eventually, the system will be able to make product and service recommendations based on the customer’s current needs, the retailer says. Businesses also can view and play back all requests received from the Easy Button, allowing the customer and Staples to listen to captured audio, review submissions from a desktop or mobile device, and verify orders.

Staples, No. 5 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, has been working with IBM to add Watson technology to its Easy Button for about a year. For now users must speak to the button and then log on to a Staples dashboard on their desktop computer to retrieve answers. Soon the button will be able to engage in dialogue with an office manager or administrative assistant when he speaks into it, eliminating the need for an employee to use his computer, Masud says. A small team in Staples’ Seattle-based Development Lab is working on the Easy Button project, Masud says.

In testing the button, Staples has found employees asking it to complete tasks and answer questions that extend far beyond Staples-related orders. To deliver on those requests, Staples is working to offer more information.

“At first we thought [employees] would just use it to order more supplies, like more coffee or paper,” he says. “But we found people asking it to remember things like the office Wi-Fi password or asking for the weather.”

Staples says employees testing the enhanced button have asked it such things as: “Can you remember that Qdoba is a good place to order catering?” Or, “Please remember that Jackie handles deliveries.” Employees also use it to cancel or modify orders, request customer service to call or email them, request in-store pickup and ask if there are coupons for items they want to purchase.

“It’s my eyes and ears around the office,” says the office manager for T3, an Austin advertising agency testing the Easy Button.

Masud says Staples also is working with outside vendors to add functionalities like location data and calculators. For example, Staples in November began working with  Managed by Q, a web-based technology that connects businesses with the services they need to run a workspace, to add functionality to the Easy Button that includes the ability to find a local office-cleaning service or to find a yoga studio that works with area businesses.

Staples, which says 80% of its mobile sales are business to business and more than half of revenue comes from the web, in March said it was testing the enhancements to the Easy Button but only recently said it was adding IBM Watson technology to the button.

Masud says Staples hasn’t decided if it will charge businesses for the Easy Button upgrades. 

 

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