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Want to know how it feels to walk through a labyrinth? Drop by any large mall, the more unfamiliar, the better. But at the nation’s largest shopping center, the Mall of America in Minnesota, a chatbot can intervene before you find yourself wandering the premises like a lost child. By early next year, three humanoid robots will also be on hand to give shoppers a nudge in the right direction.
On Black Friday, the mall gave customers a preview of the humanoid, Pepper, and on December 4th, it introduced a new chatbot designed by Satisfi Labs. The retail chatbot can field complex questions and even guide patrons to specific businesses or attractions in the mall based on their location. In a shopping center that attracts more than 40 million guests annually and up to 200,000 on an average Saturday, the chatbot is certainly a help. And customers can interact with it anywhere, via the Mall of America website, mobile app, Facebook page, and Amazon Alexa.
“The bot knows a lot about the holiday events happening at Mall of America as well as where customers can buy specific gifts for loved ones,” says Justine Santa Cruz, Satisfi’s vice president of strategic partnerships and alliances.
I chatted with the bot on the mall’s website, asking where I could find a pair of jeans and some cookies to eat. It answered, with the names of stores and their locations, in seconds. Curious if the bot would respond to statements as well as questions, I typed, “I need some gifts for my dog.” The bot directed me to a store called Just Dogs! Gourmet and told me where it was. Color me impressed.
When mall closures nationally have called the relevance of shopping centers into question, Mall of America is going high-tech to make shopping less of a headache, especially during the holidays. The chatbot not only tells customers how to get around the mall but can also take questions about deals and events and connect them to an actual human being, if needed. Since customers can choose to text the bot their questions or use voice and touch commands, the technology can also improve the shopping experience for people with disabilities. But customers who don’t speak English are out of luck for the time being. I tried asking the bot some questions in Spanish, and it couldn’t help me. Satisfi has programmed bots to speak Spanish and French for other clients, according to a Mall of America, so don’t rule it out for the shopping center in the future.
Retailers, like Levi’s, are increasingly using chatbots, but Sarah Townes, Mall of America’s vice president of marketing, says this particular technology stands out. “No mall has had the type of software and integration across multiple channels that we have,” she says.
The bot will evolve, according to Santa Cruz. Because it’s December it’s been holiday-focused, but in February Minneapolis will host the Super Bowl, and the bot will be programmed to discuss game-day events.
“Someone who would interact with the bot today would have a very different experience in the next few weeks,” Santa Cruz says. “We will continuously add [information] into the bot over time.”
The artificial intelligence the chatbot uses can also be found in the humanoid robots developed by SoftBank Robotics Europe. Each is registered under the trademark “Pepper.” The humanoids look more like a sleeker Rosie from the The Jetsons than Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina. But like Vikander’s character, Ava, Pepper can answer questions about herself. She can also pose for selfies with fans.
“This is an amazing opportunity, having this technology,” Townes says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a young child or an older adult, she really has a very, kind approachable face. People are really intrigued by her and want to come up and interact with her.”
The fact that Pepper gives shoppers helpful answers makes the robot even more approachable, Townes says. Next year, shoppers can find her at events or hanging out at random spots in the shopping center, much like the mallrats from high school.
So, how much did this technology cost Mall of America? Townes declined to say.
“We have a modest, very judicious budget,” she says. “So we are always looking for optimal solutions to help get the best guest solutions without breaking the bank.”