Macy's taps IBM Watson to improve in-store shopping app

The retailer will use Watson's machine-learning and cognitive-computing technology to assist shoppers as they wander through Macy's department stores.

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The Macy's On Call app will apply Watson's natural language processing in order to let shoppers ask questions.

Macy's is turning to IBM's Watson to improve the in-store shopping experience.

The retailer on Wednesday debuted "Macy's On Call", a mobile app rooted in GPS technology that will use Watson's machine-learning and cognitive-computing technology to assist shoppers as they wander through Macy's department stores.

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The app will apply Watson's natural language processing (via its Natural Language Classifier API) in order to let shoppers ask questions like "Where can I find the swimsuits?", and then it'll find answers based each store's unique products, services, and layout. Navigation is being provided by Satisfi's location-based software, which accesses Watson's technology from the cloud to make the whole experience come together.

As time goes on, the app will get smarter as it learns more about each store's customers and the frequently asked questions for each location.

Initially, the Macy's On Call pilot program will take place in just 10 Macy's stores around the country, but it could expand more broadly if the test proves successful. Macy's has split the 10 test stores in half, with five functioning purely as a customer-led, self-serve initiative, and the rest operating with more support from associates.

"As the program progresses, Macy's aims to closely study and gauge other potential uses of the technology, with the goal of implementing Watson's full cognitive dialog capabilities in future phases," said the retailer.

The Macy's On Call app marks the first time that IBM Watson has been integrated inside a retail store. However, Watson technology is showing up in a number of consumer-facing retail apps. Last December, IBM Watson announced an online shopping tool with The North Face, and this past spring Watson was integrated into an online tool for flower vendor 1-800-Flowers.

As for Macy's, the retailer has been refining its mobile game for several years now. The department store chain first toyed with indoor GPS navigation in 2012, when it implemented location-based technology into the mobile app for its 150,000 square-foot flagship store in New York City. At the time, Macy's was the first major retailer to implement an indoor navigation feature through its app.

Two years later, Macy's expanded its use of Shopkick-powered iBeacons to all of its stores nationwide. The implementation was touted as the largest beacon deployment in a retail setting.

It's still unclear whether Watson's cognitive magic is enough to make shoppers want to use a location-based app at their local Macy's store. Of course, the other challenge is to lure shoppers into the store in the first place -- a feat Macy's still struggles with.

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