Chatbot & AI Help Mall Engage Guests, Build Brand

Imagine visiting a megamall with more than 520 stores, 50-plus restaurants, 14 movie theaters, two hotels, a seven-acre indoor theme park, a children’s museum and much more in 5.6 million square feet. Where would you even begin?

The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., is using a chatbot that incorporates artificial intelligence and automation to help visitors decide how to spend their time there.

As the largest shopping and entertainment complex in North America, the Mall of America prides itself on offering unique, creative experiences to the 40 million people who visit each year. “For this holiday season, we wanted to one-up ourselves as a leader in innovation using technology that fit with our brand,” says Emily Shannon, director of digital for the 24-year old complex.

Chatbot Connects With Customers

Shannon had been keeping an eye on chatbot technology for a few years, noting how other organizations were using it. This past summer she met with Satisfi, a company that offers a location-based intelligent engagement platform combining the speed and accuracy of automation with the personality of a live person.

Department store giant Macy’s was using the Satisfi platform in conjunction with IBM Watson for a pilot of “Macy’s On Call,” a mobile web tool designed to give shoppers customized answers to questions about Macy’s products, services and facilities.

That fit in with the Mall of America’s strategies, so Shannon and her team worked with Satisfi throughout the fall to design a tool for the looming holiday season. “We wanted to give consumers a fun experience with a holiday spin,” she stresses.

The result was E.L.F., a whimsical acronym for Experiential List Formulator. “Our team was very involved with the theme and the language used,” Shannon says. “Users are chatting with an elf, so we opted for fun wording that an elf might use, such as ‘glittery greetings’ and ‘tinselriffic.'”

The mall conducted a soft launch one weekend in early December, tweaked E.L.F. slightly based on user feedback, and rolled it out a week later, generating buzz with media coverage and a pop-up presence on the mall website. The goal was to get visitors to use the tool before a visit so they could make the best use of their time at the mall.

E.L.F. uses IBM Watson to help guests plan personalized shopping experiences. Shoppers interact with the tool on a smart phone or other device via text messages or web chats. E.L.F. guides them through a series of questions, using a simple button interface, to determine how much time they have to spend, what activities they enjoy, and whether they want experiences for children or adults. Based on their responses, E.L.F. offers an array of suggested activities and destinations.

Promoting a Digital Concierge

If shoppers want more information, E.L.F. directs them to a digital concierge. Using text messages or web chat, one of the seven concierges on staff might help a shopper choose a child-friendly restaurant, make a reservation for them and provide directions from the shopper’s location.

Concierges are also responsible for the mall’s “robust” social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Shannon notes. She estimates that about 20 percent of the thousands of shoppers who have used E.L.F. continued on to the digital concierge.

“That in itself is a huge win for us,” she adds. “Promoting our digital concierge was one of our goals in launching E.L.F. We never saw chatbot as a replacement for human interaction. We know we can differentiate ourselves and create a better experience for our customers when we engage with them.”

Over the course of a year, the mall has more than 20,000 one-on-one contacts through the digital concierge program, Shannon reports.

In another example of technological innovation, the Mall of America is running a pilot of wayfinding kiosks as an alternative to traditional directories and maps. Users can get directions to a specific location and send the directions to their phone. Shannon is gathering user feedback and hopes to roll out the kiosks in 2017.

Given its holiday theme, E.L.F. will be up and running only through January 2. The Mall of America and Satisfi will review the insights gleaned to understand new ways to leverage cognitive computing to better serve the mall’s guests.

“We don’t know if we’ll use this exact iteration of chatbot again,” Shannon says, “but we’ll take the learnings from E.L.F. and apply them to whatever we do next, potentially on a larger scale. We want to use artificial intelligence and automation, and possibly cognitive tools and language recognition, to help visitors to Mall of America make the best choices for their visit.”


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