Staples brings bots to its Easy Button

July 22, 2016 01:28 PM

Many retailers are likely familiar with and perhaps even own a Staples Easy Button.

They may have even tapped the tchotchke a time or two, prompting the bright red plastic button to cheerfully chirp the office supply retailer’s tagline, “That was easy!” But calling out the retailer’s tagline was the extent of the Easy Button’s capabilities. Until now.

The office supplies retailer is testing the incorporation of technology into the button to enable shoppers to press the button to order or reorder a product by voice, or to ask common order-related questions, such as when an order will be delivered or the status of a return.

The move is part of a big push by Staples Inc., No. 5 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, to use machine learning to automate ordering and customer service, says Ryan Bartley, director of mobile for Staples. Machine learning is a technology that develops computer programs to teach themselves to grow and change when exposed to new data instead of being explicitly programmed by an individual. 

“The new easy system we are testing has AI [artificial intelligence] at its core,” Bartley says. “In the last year we’ve been testing using the button to let customers connect with customer service reps at Staples. And now we are we are testing a mixture of both bot and real person. We think using natural language to make requests and get what you want will soon be mainstream.” A bot is interactive software that uses artificial intelligence to simulate human conversation.

As Staples rolls out the system to customers, it also is training its bots. When a customer speaks to the Easy Button, a bot receives the message and tries to interpret the request. If the message is too complex for the bot, the query goes to a human to handle. However, the bot constantly listens to each request and learns, even if a human is answering the question. The bots will learn over time how to improve their answers and handle more requests, Bartley says. “It’s still learning in the background,” Bartley says. “It’s the early days. But we are very interested in machine learning and AI.”

Staples, which says 80% of its mobile sales are business-to-business and more than half of revenues come from the web, announced in March that it was testing the enhancements to the Easy Button and next month will begin testing it with more customers, Bartley says. Staples also is testing chat bots in its mobile apps. For the next few weeks a portion of chats in its mobile apps will be answered using bots. The goal is for bots to manage the “vast majority” of in-app chats within the next few months, Bartley says. It’s also building out bots to respond to voice-based requests via its apps.

“We are moving beyond the barriers of desktop and mobile and into conversational type experiences,” Bartely says. “We view mobile as an orchestrator rather than a channel.”

Currently, Staples has two main retail apps, one for businesses and one for consumers, but later this year it will combine both into a single app that will change to accommodate a consumer or business based on the user. That way, a Staples customer need only download one app for personal and business use, Bartley says.

The retailer also recently updated its apps to show consumers in-store inventory of products and display in-store maps so consumers can quickly find items in stores.

Recent heavy investments suggest Staples considers technology innovation a top priority. Faisal Masud, the retailer’s global executive vice president of e-commerce and chief digital officer, spearheaded development of five innovation and e-commerce centers—coined Staples Labs—located across North America in prime areas for technology talent. It operates a Velocity Lab in Cambridge, Mass., that focuses on creating mobile apps, digital platforms and in-store technologies, and a Seattle-based Development Lab to build next-generation e-commerce platforms and explore data engineering. A lab in Vancouver, British Columbia, focuses on Staples’ copy and print business, Bartley says. The Seattle lab, which is Bartley’s home base, hosts more than 100 Staples employees who focus on things like personalization, Bartley says. In 2013 Staples acquired San Mateo, Calif.-based personalization software startup Runa and Staples builds on that technology in the Seattle lab.

“Many companies like to test bright, shiny new things,” Bartley says. “With bots, they will test them to get the PR value out of them. We try to take a pragmatic approach.”   

Over the past eight months Staples’ made a big push to connect technology professionals across its labs with top executives. It began conducting monthly meetings to connect eight to 10 of Staples’ top executives with technology teams it has formed across the business. “The senior leaders provide us with guidance, resources and business direction,” Bartley says.

The Applied Innovation Team, for example, consists of about 10 technology experts who explore, among other things, how to best work with outside vendors or service providers. The Design Thinking Team includes senior product designers who test prototypes of new features and technology with real customers. “A few weeks ago the Design Thinking Team met with the copy and print team to discuss new prototypes to test with customers," Bartley says. Staples always tests early prototypes with customers before launching new products and services, he adds.

Among the technologies Staples’ labs are exploring is computer vision. That includes everything from augmented reality—an enhanced version of reality created by the overlay of a computer-generated image on a device such as a smartphone, creating a composite view—to more basic technology like image recognition. For example, Bartley envisions Staples using optical character recognition, a technology that converts documents, such as scanned paper documents, PDF files or images captured by a camera into editable and searchable data.

“Imagine our salesforce walking into an office,” Barely says. “Normally they would collect information about the company and manually enter it into a system. This enables you to just take pictures.”

Ease and simplicity are key to appealing to business customers, Bartely says. “The biggest insight we’ve taken from talking with our business customers is the need for any service we provide to live in the workflow of their day. We need to break down constraints. We need to make it drop-dead simple.”




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