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Artificial Intelligence Powers Product Recommendations For The North Face

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Personalization has been a major talking point for retailers over the past few years, and many are experimenting with innovative ways to match the right products to the consumer. For example, The North Face is testing an artificial intelligence (AI) platform that bases product recommendations on natural language processing. The technology is powered by IBM Watson, which famously beat champion Jeopardy contestants a few years ago.

The North Face developed the personalized shopping experience using the Expert Personal Shopper (XPS) platform from digital commerce technology agency and software solutions provider Fluid. The retailer refers to the experience as “Your Personal Intelligent Shopper,” which is still in its beta testing stage.

After opening up the XPS platform to a select group of consumers in mid-November, the tests yielded positive results and feedback from consumers throughout the next month, including:

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  • A 60% click-through rate for trying product recommendations;

  • Average consumer engagement times of two minutes; and

  • Assurance from 80% of users that they would use the platform again during the shopping experience.

“Right now, we’re focused on a lot of the stats around engagement,” said Cal Bouchard, Director of E-Commerce at The North Face. “If people are engaging with the tool, that’s a good thing. The goal eventually is to turn that engagement into conversion. Consumers are used to an old or current e-Commerce landscape where they may use filters or on-site search to browse through all the products themselves. We hope that if we engage consumers and start getting more comfortable with it, they’ll actually begin to use XPS as a way to narrow down the product that they want to buy.”

XPS is powered by the IBM Watson cognitive computing technology, which includes natural language processing ability designed to help consumers discover and refine product selections based on their responses to a series of questions.

For example, after a shopper enters specific details on a desired jacket or outdoor activity, XPS will ask questions about factors such as location, temperature or the customer’s gender to provide a recommendation for the shopper’s specific usage and climate needs. The conversation with the shopper enables XPS to refine its recommendations and deliver a more accurate result for future searches.

“We make a lot of great products for a lot of activities and a lot of different conditions,” Bouchard said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Sometimes it can be hard to quickly and easily show the consumer all of the different design elements and jackets that we make. With such a vast product assortment and great technology and detail behind every single product we make, we thought ‘How could we use a powerful database and AI to help that consumer interaction along, and help it become more intuitive?’”

Leveraging Data To Optimize The Brand Experience

As The North Face continues to understand more about XPS, and as the platform itself adapts to the information it collects from consumer product searches, the retailer plans on expanding testing to different products beyond jackets. After this, The North Face will seek to use the data to create a more personalized experience throughout its entire site and even within its brick-and-mortar stores.

Bouchard indicated that the testing process was “a year in the making” for both The North Face and Fluid, and admitted that the retailer is still getting used to translating human knowledge into data that can be used for testing.

“It’s difficult as a brand that has a very wide product assortment with lots of different nuances, even if you already know why certain products are best for different situations and activities,” Bouchard explained. “Working with an AI tool like XPS or Watson actually makes you codify the data…it makes you write it down and put it into a database. It’s hard as a company to take all that you know already and try to teach a computer what it is about your product, brand and consumers that it needs to know.”

As The North Face learns the nuances of the platform, Bouchard said that the retailer is potentially considering using XPS to help train different employees, such as its e-Commerce customer service team, so they can learn the ins and outs of new products every year as they are introduced.

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