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Conversational AI: Transforming the Ordering Process in Retail

an image of Amazon & Panera Bread logos to represent their partnership to bring conversational AI to retail.
Discover how Panera Bread & Amazon are partnering up to revolutionize the retail industry through conversational AI.

Imagine a world where your every desire is understood and catered to by mere devices. That’s the world AI is shaping, and it’s more tangible than you might think. A revolutionary wave, led by the concept of ‘conversational AI,’ is changing the face of the retail industry. Market leaders Panera Bread and Amazon are setting the pace for this exciting transformation.

The Power of Partnership: Panera Bread & Amazon's Conversational AI Journey

Panera Bread, always proactive in the technology domain, has deepened its partnership with Amazon to leverage its robust technology offerings. In March, Panera became the first national restaurant to integrate Amazon’s biometric scanning software, Amazon One. This move offered Panera’s loyalty program users a unique and futuristic experience of palm scanning.

But the collaboration did not stop there. Recognizing the potential of AI in enhancing customer service, Panera teamed up with Amazon’s Alexa Skills team to augment their voice ordering system.

Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant technology, is no stranger to the retail industry. It enables voice ordering for numerous retailers, including popular chains like Domino’s and Dunkin’. However, the game-changer arrived with the recent Amazon’s Food Skills API upgrade. This upgrade has led to a smoother and more conversational ordering experience, a feat achieved through significant advances in artificial intelligence.

Mark Yoshitake, GM and Director of Alexa Skills reminisces about the long-standing dream of achieving a rapid ‘thought-to-order’ process. The concept seemed far-fetched due to the technology limitations of handling language variation. However, the technological progress in AI has transformed this dream into a reality, making the conversational ordering experience possible.

The Revamped Food Skills API: A Leap Forward in Conversational AI

The revamped Food Skills API, recently adopted by Panera, stands apart from conventional voice ordering systems other retailers use. It employs conversational AI, mimicking an in-person ordering experience.

Before this transformative upgrade, Alexa’s voice-command system functioned like a phone tree, offering the consumer a predetermined set of actions, like pressing “one” to order a pizza, then pressing “four” to add toppings. This approach did not account for the variations in human speech, making the voice-ordering experience robotic and less intuitive.

However, Yoshitake and his team envisioned a more turnkey solution, understanding the need for a system that grasped the end-to-end life cycle of the ordering experience. This meant accommodating the variations and idiosyncrasies of human speech, making the interaction feel more natural and intuitive.

Creating this human-like ordering experience necessitated mapping Panera’s entire menu into Amazon’s conversational AI facilities. It involved teaching the AI model to understand the nuances of the menu and the myriad of possible variations.

For instance, the AI model needed to comprehend possible modifications for each food item – Could it be halved? Could whipped cream be added? Additionally, the model had to interpret the language variation: whether a customer ordered “mayo” or “mayonnaise,” it had to understand they were the same.

Creating this system was facilitated by the extensive menu data already available from Panera’s mobile app and website. Moreover, Amazon’s vast repository of food-specific language data, sourced from its retail side’s recipes and food experiences, further contributed to the model’s training.

The benefits of this AI-driven transformation are manifold for restaurants. Primarily, it dramatically improves the customer loyalty experience. The system offers easy access and friction-free reordering, critical factors in enhancing customer satisfaction and fostering loyalty.

According to Yoshitake, the main aim is to blend the advancements of conversational AI with intuitive patterns of customer experiences. The ultimate goal is to delight customers by streamlining the ordering process and bringing food to their tables as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Final Thoughts

Panera Bread and Amazon’s venture is a remarkable illustration of the innovative and transformative power of conversational AI in the retail sector. By transcending the traditional, these industry pioneers are redefining customer service and setting the stage for the future of retail. As conversational AI continues to evolve, it holds the potential to create an even more immersive and seamless customer experience, setting a new standard not just for restaurants but for the entire retail industry.


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