How the Siri team could change retail

Could virtual assistants soon be calling retail stores directly and handling complicated discussions? If so, the implications are tremendous.

Ford SYNC Apple iTunes

Apple iTunes music connected via Siri and Bluetooth in a 2013 Ford Escape SE.

Credit: Lucas Mearian

I was intrigued by a story last week about the founders of Apple's Siri and the follow-on A.I. virtual assistant they are finalizing, called Viv. It depicted the team ordering a pizza in San Jose — a very complicated pizza order, with multiple toppings, multiples pizzas, size changes and sides — solely by voice commands.

"They had ordered pizza, from start to finish, without placing a single phone call and without doing a Google search — without any typing at all, actually. Moreover, they did it without downloading an app from Domino’s or Grubhub," said The Washington Post piece, referring to the launch team for Viv.

But a call to the pizzeria that had received that order revealed that the virtual assistant had solely interacted with the pizzeria's site app and that it came to the restaurant looking identical to all of its other faxed orders. That's when the idea struck that although this demo was impressive, it had merely mastered an app that most consumers could handle directly. There is a way, however, to let A.I. take retailers to a place where far more friction, and potential, exists: phone orders.

Just like QR code scanning phone systems and magnetic-stripe-emulating efforts (think Samsung Pay) can work with far more phones than NFC payment efforts, an A.I. system that can make phone calls and interact with restaurant employees or call center associates can immediately affect a dramatically higher percentage of retailers. This also has the comforting benefit of being able to instantly confirm understanding.

That instant comprehension confirmation is hard for some websites, but it's harder for A.I. voice recognition. But Viv's demo shows that it may be near a point where it's practical.

For starters, have you ever ordered from a specialty restaurant and struggled with someone whose native language differs from yours? Siri herself will tell you about her language skills. "I speak multiple forms of Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. I can also speak Arabic, Danish, Finnish, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Brazilian, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Thai and Turkish."

Having Siri, Viv, Google Now, Alexa, Cortana or any of the other virtual assistants calling business to place orders is the easy part — comparatively. The hard part comes after the order is placed — interacting with the employee asking questions — and potentially even before the order is placed. How will Viv or Siri react to an employee quickly saying, against a backdrop of loud restaurant/retail noises, "Just a moment" or "Please speak up" or, better yet, "I don't take orders. Please hold on for my manager"? Will the system know to stop and wait?

Those caveats all sufficiently caveated, these virtual intelligence systems have gotten a lot better in the last year or two. I routinely use Siri and its performance within Apple's CarPlay continues to amaze. It is constantly learning new voice commands. When music is playing and some other verbal command is given — such as "Make a phone call" or "Change navigational direction" — the system mutes the audio until it completes the new task. It's then supposed to return to the previous music. The other day, when the music didn't return after making a phone call, I mindlessly told Siri "Resume music." I've done that many times before and it never worked. This time, it just did. Impressive learning, Siri.

And that's my point. These systems will soon be able to navigate a phone call to place a retail or restaurant order on their own. Or to make a specific request, such as "Can you replace the size of a necklace? If so, how much will it cost and how long will it take?" And if the associate mentions a two-for-one sale, the virtual assistant would understand that and relay it back to its owner correctly.

This is potentially massive. Many shoppers don't bother with these efforts because they are, justifiably, afraid of long hold times or frustrating communications problems. What if Viv, Siri or Alexa got good enough to handle these? Stores would get more — and more profitable — phone calls and would need to strategize its staff assignments differently.

But until then, I think I'll be handling my pizza orders on my own. Or at least when my wife won't hear me.

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