Few marketing tchotchkes have done as well as the Staples Easy Button: Sales of the $6.99 gadget passed the one million mark ten years ago. The iconic red button even shared the stage with President Barack Obama and Zach Galafaniakis on the online talk show Between Two Ferns. Not bad for something that, in truth, does nothing but say “that was easy” when pushed.
But developers at Staples (SPLS) are working to make the button much more useful by connecting it to back end services that will let business customers place their office supply orders and, eventually, check on order status via voice command, according to sources at the office supply retailer. Further down the line, the same back end systems will be able to handle orders sent by text message or email as well, said sources close to the project.
A Staples spokesman had no comment other than to say the company is always working on new ways to let customers shop “however and whenever they want.”
The goal of this connected device is to help business customers make transactions as easily as possible. The resulting tool will plug into a wall outlet and use the customer’s existing Wi-Fi. Once the button is pressed, the service will prompt the user with a “nice, friendly voice,” as described by sources, to verify the order. Based on the customer’s transaction history, the service will narrow down potential matches on the back end. Once that’s sorted out, the system will send the order for approval.
As with the Internet of Things generally, the physical device (in this case, the Easy Button) is the front end to an array of powerful technologies including natural language processing (NLP), big data analytics, and artificial intelligence that takes past orders and interactions to fine tune its responses.
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Said one source close to the effort, “They decided to pick a narrow business-to-business use case—reordering—and use all the Staples data on that customer so when you push this button and talk to it, say ‘I need black pens and copy paper,’ it will look at your history and extrapolate that when you say ‘black pens,’ you mean black Sharpies, and you probably mean a 24-pack, not a 12-pack.”
Once the re-order process is nailed down, different capabilities—including order tracking—will be added to the connected button’s repertoire.
Taking the friction out of e-commerce is a big theme these days. That’s what Amazon is trying to do with its Dash buttons, but they are consumer-oriented and dedicated to single products while this effort focuses on business customers and, in theory, can handle a bevy of different products within the Staples portfolio.
Staples, like most retailers, has seen hard times of late. In December, the Federal Trade Commission nixed a $5.5 billion bid by Staples to acquire rival Office Depot (ODP). Additionally, last month, Staples quietly laid off a few hundred employees at its Framingham, Mass. headquarters.
Insiders hope that the iconic Easy Button, now enabled with new age technologies, really can make things easier—and perhaps juice sales in the process.