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Artificial intelligence

Walmart’s experimental Amazon Prime competitor aims for Alexa next

For recently launched Jetblack, text ordering is only the testing ground.
Justin Saglio

When same-day-delivery service Jetblack launched last week out of Walmart’s incubator, Store No. 8, it was billed as a new order-by-text service. But Katie Finnegan, founder and principal of Store No. 8, told the audience at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Next event today that audio ordering and “conversational commerce” is the final goal.

For $50 a month, Jetblack customers in New York City can order a product via text message and have it delivered to their door that day or the next. But Store No. 8 hopes that a voice interface will soon make it possible to remove the texting step. Sound familiar? It may if you already have an Amazon Alexa–enabled device.

For now, text is where Walmart hopes to gauge customer interest and prove the viability of the Jetblack service. “Text is something where consumers are extremely comfortable. There is no barrier to entry for the consumer,” said Finnegan. “But over time, our thesis is, people will start doing this over voice.”

Finnegan says the primary reason for not jumping straight to voice is the need to train Jetblack’s AI to master audio product recommendations. “In audio it’s hard to give recommendations proactively and get ahead of needs and wants,” she said. Users of home assistants don’t want to listen to a list of 12 potential product recommendations. They want succinct and refined options.

While audio is the eventual goal, Finnegan knows that the company needs to concentrate on its growing customer base before branching out into different interfaces. “The focus is around making the customer experience magical,” she said. “Given the stage the company is at right now, that’s the top priority.”

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