Westfield, R/GA’s Start-ups Focus on AI and Customer Engagement

Improving the customer experience is a major focus of online and in-person retailers, and it’s going to take both humans and robots to do it.

That was the message at an event at Westfield Labs’ Bespoke. The first class of graduates from the Connected Commerce Accelerator, which was created with R/GA Ventures, presented their latest ideas and innovations to a room filled with 250 investors and members of the retail community.

The 10 companies focused on a range of points along the purchase path, from discovering products online to fitting, receiving and returning goods. Key themes included the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, optimizing and assisting sales associates, and streamlining the delivery and returns process.

“It’s really about customer service,” said David Blumenfeld, who is senior vice president of business development at Westfield Labs. “When loyalty is on the decline, how do you keep customers engaged?”

The demo day came at the conclusion of the new 12-week program in which start-ups worked with a team of advisors from partners such as Macy’s, Shopify Plus, Bank of America Merchant Services, Verizon and Wal-Mart to try to improve the way that retailers interact with customers.

Blumenfeld said that after working on the idea for a couple of years, it was nice to see it all come together — especially since roping in multiple companies as sponsors is “easier said than done.”

He said working together was essential to the program’s success and the future of retail. He referenced statements made earlier this year by Westfield Corp. co-chief executive officer Steven Lowy, who said that going forward, “collaboration is the new competition.”

The program had already been a success, said R/GA Ventures global chief operating officer Stephen Plumlee, in that the chosen start-ups worked closely with the program’s retail partners to identify and work on problems.

“The thesis of the program was, when you can buy everything online, what is the future?” he said. The common thread is the customer’s experience, from the sales floor to the shipping and fulfillment center.

The companies were chosen from hundreds of international applicants, and already have begun working with businesses and are gaining traction.

Clarifai, an AI company that uses visual recognition, earlier this week revealed a $30 million round of funding. Oak expanded beyond its smart fitting room mirror to create Oak StockRoom, which uses AI to manage in-store stock movement. Happy Returns, whose in-person “return bars” provide instant refunds, introduced a pilot program in two Westfield locations. And Darkstore, which helps e-commerce retailers store inventory in cities to allow for same-day delivery, revealed two new locations, in New York and Phoenix.

Another delivery-based startup, AxleHire, provides same-day delivery for e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar stores. More AI-powered innovations came by way of Agent Q, which “superpowers” customer service chat capabilities, and Reply.ai, which helps companies build and manage chat bots. Cordial, meanwhile, uses machine learning to help retailers and publishers correspond with customers.

Humans also got some high-tech attention. Myagi is a service that helps sales associates with lessons, and Percolata uses in-store sensor and sales data to optimize sales teams.

Going forward, Plumlee said that additional programs were already in the works — in New York, in London and possibly in Asia — with focuses on AI and machine learning and on the so-called “internet of things,” or IOT.

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