AI Helps North Face Get Personal With Customers

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
AI at North Face

The clothing and equipment retailer turned to AI and natural conversation to accelerate the online shopping process and provide personalized recommendations.

Online retailing is a difficult proposition. A sluggish Website or clumsy search capability can torpedo any chance for a sale.

What's more, too many of today's e-storefronts are less than personal and toss out interfaces that are far from user-friendly. As shoppers trend toward mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, these deficiencies become even more glaring.

The North Face, an outdoor clothing and equipment retailer, is tackling this problem. "Online shopping can be challenging, and filtering results is impersonal," says Cal Bouchard, e-commerce director for The North Face. "We wanted to find a solution … that would improve the online and mobile experience."

This past December, the company introduced an unconventional approach that delivers personalization without the need for filtering. The initiative, dubbed XPS, taps IBM Watson and Fluid Expert Personal Shopper (XPS) software technology to provide advice by incorporating natural conversation into searches.

For example, a shopper might enter basic details about a desired jacket or outdoor activity, such as "I need a jacket for a Vermont ski trip," or "I'm looking for a light raincoat for hiking in Oregon during the summer." The system then asks the consumer to refine questions based on factors such as gender, location, temperature and time of year.

Next, the system produces a recommendation that takes into account the shopper's needs, including the geographic location and climate. A customer can refine and adjust the search as needed, and the technology responds immediately. The tool is available for desktop and mobile Web browsers.

Studying Customer Behavior

According to Bouchard, The North Face carefully studied customers and their behavior before embarking on a development process that took about a year. It involved collecting data about places and then "triangulating product information people would see for the various activities and regions."

The final step was building the XPS platform and teaching Watson how to deal with the data and how to propose questions to consumers. The retailer engaged in a limited beta rollout to returning shoppers a month before making the tool fully available.

The results have been positive. The company reports that customers are spending an average of 2 minutes with the XPS tool, and more than 75 percent of customers have indicated that they would use it again.

"The XPS system is an entirely new way of shopping that makes online and mobile shopping easier and more satisfying for customers," Bouchard says. "Now, it's possible [for consumers] to use natural conversation to accelerate the online shopping process and receive outerwear recommendations that are tailored to the person's specific needs."

The North Face is hoping that this technology keeps it positioned at the forefront of innovation. For now, it is using the functionality for outerwear, but it plans to expand the search capability to other products over time.

"As a company, it comes down to the need to continually evolve—especially as technology transforms the landscape of the retail industry," Bouchard points out. "The online marketplace can be very competitive, especially when it comes to price.

"However, we know that consumers are willing to pay for unique and rich experiences. Our goal is to offer the best content and consumer engagement we can, and we believe this technology allows us to deliver that."

This article was originally published on 2016-02-12
Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).
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