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IBM's Watson Explores the Great E-Commerce Unknown with The North Face

Active-Gear Seller Is Mulling a New Site Featuring Watson Technology

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Brooke Aguilar, Fluid
Brooke Aguilar, Fluid

A visit to TheNorthFace.com is not unlike other e-commerce treks: outdoors clothing and gear is organized into categories for men, women and youth. But the active-wear brand has solicited one of the best known data explorers around to turn its site into a shopping expedition that thinks the way humans do.

The North Face was an early partner of IBM's initiative aimed at applying the tech giant's Watson cognitive computing system to craft a new approach to shopping.

Like many other sites, The North Face's includes some alternative means of navigating such as browsing through apparel for hiking, or perusing a line of jackets according to the type of technology they feature.

Yet what the retailer envisions is something much more robust.

Think of the future Watson-based site as a personal shopping concierge. "We can imagine our customers using the technology to tell Watson about their next adventure: where they are going, when, and what they are planning on doing," said Cal Bouchard, director of ecommerce for The North Face. "The software would provide some initial recommendations for products that would be suitable, and might request additional information about season to narrow down product selections for the consumer."

IBM's Watson technology gained recognition when it outwitted "Jeopardy!" champions in 2011. The company made the data-parsing system available in May to clients for CRM, customer call centers and other purposes under the Watson Engagement Advisor name. At the time, IBM also planned to apply Watson to improve measurement of ad effectiveness and media planning.

The North Face project is in its nascent stages as the partners consider ramping up following an initial demo test. The retailer, along with IBM and tech consultancy Fluid, began working on a prototype in the third quarter of this year. Fluid has worked with The North Face since around 2008.

Rather than forcing people to conform to systems, the idea is to create systems that conform to the ways people natural process information and ask questions. So, while today a runner might sift through a page featuring fleece vests to prepare for an autumn trip, a Watson-based site would allow him to ask, "What gear do I need for running in Vermont in October?"

"We train Watson to be able to think and understand content and expertise as we go," said John Gordon, VP-IBM Watson Solutions. His team is building the underlying Watson service that Fluid is customizing for The North Face. That involves providing Fluid with developer tools and APIs to plug into their applications. APIs, or application programming interfaces, allow developers to feed data into tools they build.

Part of the initiative involves ingesting data on product features and specs, reviews, catalog data, and information from outside sources. "Everyone has data in different formats…. That's one of the key critical areas we're working on with IBM," said Brooke Aguilar, VP, global business development at Fluid, a creative agency and software development firm that specializes in digital shopping.

The system might also tap into personal loyalty data such as previous purchases to help suggest products. "Because of the way we can procure data and bring that into the corpus of Watson, we can also mine for personal data," said Ms. Aguilar.

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