Ace Hardware Starts A Voice Recognition Trial for Finding Products

Written by Evan Schuman
August 18th, 2009

Rick Baalmann, who heads up the St. Louis area stores for the 4,400-store Ace Hardware chain, said he often wants to get in and out quickly on shopping trips so he warmed quickly to a vendor pitching a service to tell customers—via their cell phones and voice recognition—the exact location of products before they arrive at the store. Whether customers will warm to it, though, is a very different issue.

The idea is for shoppers to phone the service and then speak the product name and the automated voice system will say the exact location of that product. If it works, the system’s creators envision successor systems that will turn that consumer phone number into an impromptu CRM customer-identifier. Baalmann, who will try the system at a store in Desperes, MO (right outside St. Louis) starting Tuesday (Aug. 18), already has people ready to call manufacturers this week to sell them the ability to send text codes to customers who ask about certain product categories.

“For manufacturers, this promises the ability for them to send a message right then and there” to a consumer who has expressed an interest in a product type and is right now driving to buy it, Baalmann said. “We have the potential to create a bounceback campaign, offering somebody a special for back in our store. We have a plan to contact a substantial number of our key vendors.”

Another capability Baalmann would like to add is realtime inventory data, so that a customer who asks for a specific product can be told it’s not in stock and, potentially, when it’s slated to be back in stock.

The vendor behind the service, Aisle411, also has some grand plans for future iterations, such as automating customer feedback.

“One element Aisle411 can implement into the equation with our system that hasn’t been achieved in the past is crowd sourcing, allowing consumers to update in-store inventory information based on their findings in the store,” said vendor CEO Nathan Pettyjohn. “This popular internet phenomenon could transend into the store with the proliferation of consumers use of mobile services in the store and consumers insatiable need to engage in social networking. This is a unique area of inventory control that allows for data flow back into the system for updates. This is really a phase two of our system and will take some time to tune, but the potential is there.”

As for the CRM potential, Baalmann is envisioning the potential for area Ace stores but Pettyjohn wants to move this system way beyond a single retail chain. “With our system, we can track the call flow. We know that this phone number called in and was at retailer X asking for diapers and at retailer Y asking for dog food,” he said.

If this program succeeds and is deployed by multiple retail chains, the popular IT question will dominate early negotiations: Who owns the data? Could the data be sold to competing chains that are also customers? Will manufacturer text messages be auctioned off to the highest bidder?

But this is all assuming it will work. There are two technical hurdles, both involving accuracy: How accurate is the product location data and how accurately will the voice recognition system identify what is being asked?

Baalmann said beta testing of the service showed 99.5 percent accurate results, but it will be interesting to see if that number changes when it leaves the closed test stage and gets opened to real questions from real customers. He also vouches for the system’s voice recognition accuracy but a realworld test—with realworld background noise, accents, mumbled questions and slurred speech—may also impact that figure.


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