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1-800-Flowers wants to transform its business with A.I.

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 27, 2016
A company focused on change uses IBM Watson to connect with customers

LAS VEGAS -- Executives at 1-800-Flowers.com expect a new wave in artificial intelligence technology will help to change their business so much it’ll be like running a brand new business.

“We are on the cusp of a change as big as when e-commerce hit,” said Chris McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com. “It’s giving us the opportunity to have such deep relationships with our customers that it’ll be like the company hasn’t existed before. It can change our market, our supply chain. Everything. It will drive change all through the company.”

That’s big talk from a businessman who knows about transformative change. After all, 1-800-Flowers.com already has transformed itself several times.

The company, a floral and gourmet food gift retailer with more than 4,000 employees, was founded in 1976 when McCann’s brother James started a flower shop. The business did well so he opened more.

chris mccann 1800flowers 
Chris McCann is president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com.

In the mid-1980s, McCann was on board and got behind the idea of ordering products over the phone. He shrunk the business from 12 brick-and-mortar stores to three, focused on telephone sales and created the brand known so well today.

That was the first transformation.

In the 1990s, they began looking at online sales, creating a presence on AOL in 1994 and launching its first website on Netscape in 1995.

That was the second transformation.

“I used to say ‘90 to ‘97 was some of the most fun times of my career because it allowed me to experiment with lots of emerging technologies,” McCann told Computerworld in an interview at the IBM World of Watson conference here this week. “We’re not smart enough to predict what technologies will take hold, but we need to be there so when the consumer decides what they want, we’ll be ready.”

In the mid-2000s, the company jumped into social media and mobile technology, launching an ultimately unsuccessful store called Second Life, along with a successful Twitter presence, Facebook page and mobile app.

The ways in which 1-800-Flowers.com connects with customers, sells its products and promotes its brand continue to change.

“We foster a culture of innovation,” McCann said. “In 2008, we were having layoffs, but I said we are cutting costs in many different places but we also are investing in the future. One of those was investing in mobile. Not everybody agreed with me. It’s the future. We need to stay with it.”

The trends that McCann sees changing his business yet again are conversational commerce and big data, analytics and cognitive computing.

Conversational commerce is a fairly new term in which companies use artificial intelligence to interact with customers using voice commands, text and chat apps.

 

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