1-800-Flowers.com launches AI 'concierge' powered by IBM's Watson

Retailer is betting big on artificial intelligence for Mothers Day and beyond

Just in time for Mother’s Day, 1-800-Flowers.com is launching a digital "concierge" that uses IBM’s artificial intelligence system, Watson, to help consumers search for and place their order.

Dubbed GWYN (Gifts When You Need), the concierge will engage consumers in conversation on the company’s desktop and mobile Web sites starting today. Rather than browse the company’s inventory in search of the right bouquet or gift basket, consumers will be able to tell GWYN what they are looking for, then select and order the product from inside the conversational interface.  

"Instead of a structured process of filling out a form on a website, you'll be able to just type in to GWYN, ‘I'm looking for a birthday gift,’ and GWYN will ask, ‘Is it for a male or female? Age 30 or 35?’ " said Chris McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers.com. "It will bring you down a little bit of a tree."

The more customers interact with GWYN, the smarter "she" will become, eventually offering a customized shopping experience based on an individual’s previous behavior. "Gwyn will be constantly learning about you, and then service the products that we think fit what you're looking for," he said.

It’s a major technological step forward for a brand that prides itself on innovation. "We revolutionized the flower business by embracing an 800 number all those years ago," said Jim McCann, founder and chief executive of 1-800-Flowers.com (and Chris’ older brother). The company debuted its website in the early digital days of 1995, and launched three new mobile apps last quarter alone.

"It’s part of our DNA to always be looking for what could change our category," he continued. "And that change is always around access and convenience for our customers."

GWYN is not the first digital shopping assistant to rely on Watson’s natural-language abilities. Last month, The North Face launched a similar mobile app that let users talk to Watson to find the right item of clothing.

But the debut of GWYN solidifies 1-800-Flowers.com growing reputation as one of the leading brands investing in artificial intelligence. Last month, the company became one of the first two retailers to launch a chatbot on Facebook Messenger. Barely a week later, the company announced an integration with Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, that lets consumers order flowers strictly by voice command.

"If you look at how much time consumers are spending on messenger apps, it’s clear what they are looking to do is interact with each other and with brands in a conversational manner," said Chris McCann. "That's what led us to say, ‘OK, let's get involved.’"

For now, GWYN — which is launching in beta — will have access only to a limited percentage of the retailer’s inventory. "Because of the Mother's Day holiday, we thought that was appropriate," said Jim McCann. A full-service version of GWYN is slated for September, "as we move into the holiday season."

Limiting GWYN’s functionality has other benefits, too. In March, Microsoft’s AI bot Tay started spewing Nazi propaganda less than 24 hours after its debut thanks to pranksters on Twitter manipulating its learning process. "GWYN has been trained on data specific to 1-800-Flowers.com's inventory, so its corpus of knowledge will also remain relevant to that domain," said Keith Mercier, IBM Watson Retail Leader, via email.

For now, 1-800-Flowers.com — which has worked with multiple creative agencies on a project basis throughout its history, including Sapient and KBS — is not putting any marketing dollars behind the launch of GWYN. "We'll learn how to perfect it," said Chris McCann. "Then, our anticipation is that we start to put some marketing effort behind it in the fall."

Though neither brother would disclose a budget for the GWYN project, Jim McCann characterized it as a "moderate investment."

Launching the week of Mother’s Day was very much by design; though 75% of the company’s revenue now comes from everyday purchases, Mother’s Day is the largest of the "floral holidays" that make up the other 25%.

Shifting dependence away from holidays and toward everyday gift giving has been part of the company’s strategy since at least 2009, when it debuted 1-800-Baskets.com and began adding non-floral items to its inventory. Last year, the company, which is based in Carle Place, New York, acquired Harry & David, a premium food and gift retailer in Medford, Oregon.

The move away from flowers appears to be paying off: for the fiscal year 2015, revenues increased 48.3% to $1.12 billion, marking the fifth straight year of revenue growth. Gourmet food and gift baskets now account for 55% of the company’s business, with flowers accounting for just 38%.

Embracing AI and conversational ordering could accelerate the shift away from flowers even further, Jim McCann said. "We'd expect in this environment, we'll learn even faster what other products they'd like to see," he said. "It will be our business to go out and make sure we have them on the platform."

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