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Staples develops an office competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 27, 2016
The office supply company turns its Easy Button into device that will be the assistant's assistant

IBM Watson, which gained fame in a 2011 man-versus-machine matchup with game show Jeopardy contestants, has gone on be used in the financial industry, academic research and health care.

For Masud, it's a natural for retail, as well, by providing companies with a system that knows their entire inventory of products and their customers' needs, as well.

"This is really very easy for Watson, so using it makes sense," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "It's a good idea. However, unless and until it has more services, it's just a smart Easy Button, but that is worthwhile, too, if ordering supplies is your job."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said the Watson part of this device will have to work really well or users will be disappointed and frustrated.

"It has to be more precise than the consumer Echo because we are talking about business, not fun," he said, adding that it's wise for Staples to roll out services gradually. "It should allow them to work it out over time but, again, business people are impatient and it needs to be done quickly."

The Easy Button device is one of the ways that Staples executives want customers to be able to connect with the retailer.

While customers can still walk into the company's more than 3,000 stores worldwide, they also can make orders by phone, through a mobile smart app, over Facebook Messenger and with a Slackbot.

The Easy Button device, though, is designed to take customer service to a new level – an artificial intelligence-fueled level of customer connection.

"You say, 'I want to place an order for paper.' It will look up what paper you ordered before and say, "Is this what you want?' Then you approve it and it's done," Masud said. "Today, if you look at the life of folks interacting with us, we don't want them spending any time dealing with friction, like calling to check in on their order or figuring out what they should buy. We want that to be seamless."

Masud doesn't see Staples' device as a competitor to the Echo or Google Home.

"We don't think it's a competitor because we won't be in homes at all," he said. "This is a highly functional device for the office. We are focused on the assistant or the procurement manager."

Masud said office assistants and managers will be freed up by having the Easy Button device handle the brunt of their ordering and delivery tracking, so they can work on more complicated and important tasks.

"Watson can address more questions from customers quickly," he added. "Now people aren't holding on the phone, or exchanging emails or wasting time somehow. We want to incorporate services into all of this. We have business cards and copy and print services. Those are a little fragmented to the customer and now they'll be unified by the Easy Button. We want to make office management a lot easier."


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