Macy’s tests artificial intelligence as a way to improve sales

Macy’s artificial intelligence tool
A Macy’s employee tests out Macy’s on Call, a new mobile web tool designed to improve service and sales.

Macy’s is testing a mobile tool using artificial intelligence that lets shoppers get answers customized to the store they’re in — such as where a particular brand is located or what’s in stock — that they would normally ask a sales associate face-to-face. 

The tool, which the nation’s largest department store chain calls a “mobile companion,” can be accessed for now through a browser and will accept questions in 10 U.S. locations about products, services and facilities. It uses natural language and offers feedback in seconds. 

It’s developed by IBM Watson, the Jeopardy-winning “cognitive computing” service and is designed to keep learning more about the store’s customers. That’s a key element as Macy’s seeks to spur sluggish sales, make being at the store more enjoyable and distinguish itself from online portals and specialty retailers. 

“We want to improve the shopping experience. We want the customers to shop at Macy’s and come back,” said Serena Potter, Macy’s group vice president of digital media strategy. The goal: Boost sales while freeing up employees to focus on more complicated customer requests. 


Potter said Macy’s worked with sales associates to compile the most common inquires at each store. Macy’s then fed the system questions and information so it can recognize what’s being asked and what the answer is. Since the pilot was quietly launched last month, the number of queries ballooned to the low thousands per store. 

In Southern California, the self-serve initiative is being tested at the Macy’s store in Arcadia’s Westfield Santa Anita shopping center. Additional locations are in Bethesda, Md.; Woodbridge, N.J.; Portland, Ore.; and Miami. 

Five others — Short Hills, N.J.; Buford, Ga.; Garden City, N.Y.; Atlanta; and North Miami — will have a feature that lets customers summon a sales associate. The Miami and  North Miami locations will have it available in Spanish, as well.

Customers can click on on their mobile device, but Potter said the company is working on an app. She declined to say when the tool might be rolled out nationwide. 


The mobile tool has significant potential to help Macy’s develop deeper relationships with customers by eventually offering shoppers help in styling outfits and other services. IBM Watson Vice President Stephen Gold says the technology, once trained, can detect if customers are frustrated based on their answers and can alert a sales associate.

The technology is similar to artificial intelligence the company is working on with brands such as 1-800 Flowers and North Face, but in those cases, it answers questions on their websites. 

Macy’s is accelerating its efforts to reinvent its business as online leader is expected to surpass the department store in clothing sales next year. The company’s sales dropped 4% to $27.08 billion for the year ended Jan. 30, and it has slashed its full-year profit and revenue outlook for the year. 

Get our weekly California Inc. newsletter