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The North Face sees A.I. as a perfect fit

Sharon Gaudin | Jan. 27, 2016
Artificial Intelligence adds a sense of “human” assistance for online buyers.

The North Face teamed up with IBM to use its Watson natural-language, machine learning system as well as software builder Fluid; it created the Expert Personal Shopper (XPS) software that uses the Watson technology.

The A.I.-powered online shopping assistant, which has been 12 months in the making, is live on The North Face site. Once in the jackets and vests section, click on Shop with IBM Watson.

The A.I. system asks questions like, "Where and when will you be using this jacket? What type of precipitation do you expect?" And "What kind of activities will you use this jacket for?"

The system then assesses the criteria, sorts through the selection of jackets and offers up its best picks.

"It's at least not just grabbing pieces of data about you and putting them in a program," said Bouchard. "It's coming out and asking you questions and it takes in your answers."

So far, it's been working well.

The system went live in mid-November with the first part of a three-phase rollout. At first, a small group of customers was invited to try it out. Then, "elite" customers were allowed to test it. Finally, in mid-December it was pushed out live to everyone.

According to Bouchard, 75% of the customers who have tried it said they would use it again.

"When we read the comments, we found the people who needed the most help found it the most helpful," she added. "They might not talk jacket technology, like powder skirts and Gor-Tex. People who don't know that lingo found it the most useful."

Customers who know a lot about jackets and what they need found the A.I. system less helpful than newbies and were often quick to discount other options presented.

With that in mind, Bouchard's team is going to continue working on the system to make it more appealing to a larger pool of customers.

"I think A.I. is a game changer," said Bouchard. "Where we are right now is the first step. This didn't change our business in December but it will change the game. More people will engage our products. We're not as interested in the fast sell. We want to engage people in our brand and get them stoked on it. It's going to change online shopping over the next five years."

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, said The North Face is cutting edge when it comes to figuring out how to use artificial intelligence in retail.

"A.I. is one of the most exciting trends in retail and it's only going to be getting better," he said. "We're still in the first inning of this new game. Cutting-edge brands will use this as a competitive advantage until the rest of the marketplace catches up to them."


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