Staples Easy Button gets IoT makeover

by Dave Michels

“That was easy” is the iconic tagline of Staples. The international retailer has used that line since 2003. In 2005, the slogan took a material shape and appeared in ads as a red “easy” button. Now, Staples is giving its next-generation of the Easy Button a serious IoT makeover.

The button was meant as a metaphor to represent easy business transactions. But that didn’t stop people from wanting an actual button. Staples responded by producing Easy Buttons as a “stress relieving” novelty. Pushing the button causes it to say, “That was easy.”

Staples has sold over 8 million Easy Buttons, with proceeds going toward the Special Olympics.

Today, with assistance from IBM and Vonage, Staples intends to move the Easy Button from concept to reality by connecting the next model to its order-entry system.

Digital Easy Button: Talk to me

The next generation of the Easy Button is designed to supplement Staples’ existing Easy System. Although Staples is associated with a network of brick-and-mortar stores, 60% of its sales are online. The Easy System provides account management and an ordering interface for its authorized business customers.

The Staples Easy System can be accessed through web, email, mobile client and even popular messaging services. The new Digital Easy Button introduces a speech interface. Administrators can request specific supplies by speaking directly to the next-generation Easy Button. It’s also available as a virtual button in a new smartphone app.

The spoken words are analyzed by IBM’s Watson, which uses natural language processing and machine learning to interpret intent. The Easy Button learns from past interactions. For example, it can deduce general descriptions down to specific items by reviewing past purchases. Once Watson matches request to product, it places it in the app’s shopping cart.

The Easy Button doesn’t actually order the item. That’s an important point that I’ve written about before. Too often AI becomes unreliable because of bad assumptions. It’s far better to use AI algorithms to prepare for action. By placing items in the shopping cart, it gives the admin final review and approval.

The Digital Easy Button uses Wi-Fi, so conceptually it’s portable and can move to a supply closet or other locations as necessary. The latest version offers a variety of speech-based services. In addition to common requests such as time and weather, the Digital Easy Button can offer details such as product availability. It can also help find service professionals, such as a florist or plumber.

Of course, the Easy Button can’t do it all. So when additional assistance is needed, it can connect to a customer service agent. With assistance from Vonage Nexmo, the Digital Easy Button transforms itself into a direct-dial speakerphone.

The new Digital Easy Button is expected to increase sales by reducing friction and providing an overall improved experience.

Competing with Amazon

Although Staples has been pushing this concept since 2003, Amazon has already delivered conceptually similar devices with its Dash buttons and Echo smart speaker. Amazon has also prioritized business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce, and Amazon Business has grown rapidly since 2015. In July, Amazon claimed it is serving more than 1 million U.S. business customers.

Staples has an advantage with its huge footprint, which simplifies distribution and facilitates same-day delivery. The companies are moving closer to each other. While Amazon is pondering physical stores, Staples is building a smart speaker optimized for B2B sales.

If Staples can sell 8 million dumb Easy Buttons, there’s considerable potential for a smart one.

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