During Super Bowl week, a handful of sassy robots playfully posed for selfies, simulated throwing a football and quizzed Mall of America visitors on sports trivia.
Meet Pepper, who with a tablet mounted on its chest is one of the latest technologies shopping centers are testing to keep customers interested in coming to physical stores. MOA also now uses chatbots on its website and mobile app to answer customers’ questions.
While SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper has become a common sight in mobile phone stores, banks and restaurants in Japan, it and other humanoid robots are still a relative novelty here in the U.S. But as the technology has improved and these robots are now being upgraded with facial recognition and artificial intelligence, more companies are beginning to explore if there is a practical business reason to employ such robots beyond just turning heads.
The Mall of America, one of the first shopping malls in the U.S. to try out the robots, began its pilot program over Black Friday weekend. Mall executives are interested to see whether Pepper can be another useful tool to help visitors find a specific store or restaurant in the gigantic mall, while also helping the mall think through and develop a voice strategy as it looks to tap into the power of Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
“This is sort of like an extension of our guest-services team,” Sarah Townes, the mall’s vice president of marketing, said of Pepper. “We’re always looking at that guest experience and how we can reduce any challenges in helping maneuver around a large property like this. And there’s also just the fun factor of having them here.”
Dave Hopkins, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said it’s wise for the Mall of America to experiment with the newest technologies as it aims to keep attracting people despite the popularity of online shopping.
“The mall is under pressure,” he said. “So they need to keep innovating their customer experience to keep people coming to the mall.”
The mall launched its chatbot, a computer program that uses artificial intelligence to have a conversation, in early December in the midst of the holiday rush. It interacts via text with customers on its website, mobile app and Facebook messenger and via voice through Pepper and Amazon’s Alexa.
“Hi there and thanks for chatting with us,” the chatbot says in a dialogue box when visitors to the mall’s recently revamped website click on the “chat” button from the homepage. “Our virtual assistant can help you right away. If you would like to speak with one of our live team members, just type ‘live person.’ What can we help you with today?”
Common questions include the mall’s hours, transportation options to get there, which stores and restaurants it has and what special events it has coming up.
While the mall has a digital team that typically responds to such queries, the chatbot has become the mall’s first line of response and helps when workers are busy also fielding inquiries from Twitter and text messages.
“Sometimes, people just need a quick answer,” Townes said. “They don’t need that long, more personalized experience.”
The chatbot is also handy during hours when the mall is closed, when, say, people from other countries and in different time zones may visit the mall’s website to plan a trip.
By taking over some of the basic work, the chatbot frees up the mall’s workers to spend time addressing more detailed questions, Townes said, and to do other tasks such as gathering content to post on social media. She added that the mall hasn’t downsized its staff as a result of the chatbot and has no plans to do so.
Workers also monitor the chatbot to make sure customers are being helped properly.
“As anyone who has launched a chatbot knows, it’s not 100 percent Day One,” Townes said. “It takes a number of months for that learning to take place.”
While there is a risk in turning people off who may not get their question answered properly, she said, there hasn’t been any negative feedback yet from the public.
Satisfi Labs, a New York-based artificial intelligence startup that created a more rudimentary Facebook chatbot for the mall as a short-lived test during the holidays in 2016, spent a year creating the current chatbot, incorporating the most common questions the mall receives. Both humans and the technology are able to flag conversations where the machine doesn’t get it quite right and then program it for the correct answers.
“We have a scoring system where we can go through the conversations and the machine tells us which ones are unsatisfactory, even if the person didn’t say that’s not correct,” said Justine Santa Cruz, a vice president for Satisfi Labs.
The conversation ends up getting transferred to a human about 20 percent of the time, she added.
While still in their infancy, similar chatbots are beginning to pop up in various places. Satisfi works with a number of sports teams, including the Minnesota Vikings, to help direct people to concession stands or answer questions about ticketing at stadiums through their apps. Satisfi also ran a chatbot pilot in about 35 Macy’s stores that ended in December.
Customers can use the voice-activated chatbot through Pepper or Alexa, although that capability is still limited. The trial hasn’t been perfect. For example, Pepper sometimes has trouble hearing when the mall is noisy.
“This is such a big property, and sometimes that ambient noise is a challenge,” Townes said.
For now, the biggest appeal of Pepper seems to be how people of all ages — from young kids to its older mall walkers — are fascinated by the robots.
“There’s not a single person who walks by Pepper and sees her little sparkly eyes and isn’t excited to engage with her in some way,” Townes said. “That’s what we’re really about here — surprise and delight, guest engagement and ensuring there’s something new to experience when they come to Mall of America, whether you’re a local or an international traveler.”
Indeed, Pepper never has a problem drawing a crowd.
“The question for North American businesses is what is the return on that investment?” said Steve Carlin, chief strategy officer for SoftBank, Pepper’s maker.
SoftBank is trying to show that by partnering with shopping malls, hotels and airports and closely tracking the results. At the Courtyard by Marriot in Anaheim, Calif., for example, Pepper helped improve its customer service ratings, he said.
And at the Mall of America during Super Bowl week, SoftBank said more than 5,600 people interacted with Pepper, many in their 20s and 30s, a highly coveted demographic.