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Staples Canada: Harnessing AI to better serve the community

What really worked miracles for us was the dynamic re-ranking algorithm - that was a real game changer.

Diptendu Ray

Principal Product Manager @ Staples Canada

Summary

Inspiring the world to work smarter Staples Canada (Staples.ca) is the Canadian subsidiary of Staples Inc. whose corporate mission is to “inspire people to work smarter, learn more and grow every day.” In charge of the team responsible for Staples.ca and Staplespreferred.ca (a closed-login business-to-business site) are Jeff Serota, Senior Director of Product Management and Diptendu Ray, Principal Product Manager. 

After becoming an Algolia customer in 2018, the Staples CA team expanded their engagement with the adoption of advanced search functionality to continue improving the online experience for their more than 200,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs). This additional functionality was put to the test with the appearance of Covid-19 in early 2020. Staples Canada 2

Staples
Use case

B2C Ecommerce

Headquarters

Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada

Customer since

since 2018

Feature usage

Rules, Personalization, Dynamic Synonym Suggestions, Dynamic Re-Ranking, AI

Key results
  • 65% Issues automatically solved 

  • Double Digit increase in conversions 

  • 200,000 Shop-Keeping Units (SKUs)

The challenges

  • 1.

    Catering to diverse audiences

The solution

  • 1.

    Solution and early successes

  • 2.

    Rules: when basic relevance is not enough

  • 3.

    Using AI for automated yet transparent relevance

  • 4.

    Personalization: finding the needle in the haystack

The result

  • 1.

    Seeing opportunity in crisis

The challenges

Catering to diverse audiences 

With such a high volume of products on the Staples.ca site, connecting customers with the right items as quickly as possible is of utmost importance. Jeff and Diptendu noticed two main customer groups: those shopping more frequently and knowing what they need, or those shopping less frequently who need to be shown what new and exciting products are available. This presents both an interesting challenge and an opportunity for the Product Management team: how do you keep things simple and streamlined for one group, yet highlight exploration and new products for the second? 

Ensuring the website can respond equally well to both groups is a key part of their ecommerce experience; yet the team’s legacy search tools were not keeping up. Some were very manual and required the use of spreadsheets (which were hard to keep up to date) while others appeared modern, but provided little visibility and no explanation for how and why results were changing. Jeff and team wanted a solution that was smart and fast, yet flexible enough to understand and have control over the relevance and search results.

Solution and early successes

Jeff and Diptendu set out looking for a new provider who was already best-in-class, yet continuing to grow and invest in the search experience. With Algolia, Staples Canada found the perfect balance: not too manual, yet not too automated, and with a strong product roadmap. 

After implementation, Staples Canada started to see immediate results, with increases in key metrics such as add-to-cart rates, click-through-rates from results, and revenue. Diptendu became a big fan of the visibility Algolia provides into their key metrics, as well as having visibility into queries with no clicks (providing visibility into potential problem areas on the site to look into).

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Expanding functionality and adopting advanced features

With increased visibility and positive impact on key metrics, the Staples Canada team further expanded their use of Algolia with the adoption of advanced features such as Rules, Personalization and AI.

Rules: when basic relevance is not enough 

Staples.ca sells many different but related types of products on their site (e.g., laptops and laptop bags, chairs and chair mats) where basic text search would not alone be able to provide an outstanding user experience. The team utilized Algolia Rules to fix this. The search query “Paper” is a good example: customers are looking for printer paper when they search for “Paper” — yet, before Rules were implemented, such a query would return “paper towels”, likely leading to a missed purchase.

S

Using AI for automated yet transparent relevance 

The Product Management team also saw immediate uplift from Algolia AI, utilizing Dynamic Re-Ranking and Dynamic Synonym Suggestions to automate the work of increasing relevance. The team still wanted control of relevance algorithms, and Algolia AI provided the right balance: reducing manual relevance labor while offering transparency on relevance changes.

“What really worked miracles for us was the dynamic re-ranking algorithm - that was a real game changer.”

staples image 3

Personalization: finding the needle in the haystack 

With so many products, the challenge for Staples.ca is to help those millions of visitors “find the needle in the haystack” and surface products that they are most likely seeking or are more likely to purchase. The team added Algolia Personalization to find the “sweet spot”: balancing exploration with items the shopper had previously shown interest in. Personalization combined with AI helps to automate this discovery process, freeing up engineering time to work on more strategic initiatives, saving the company time and money. Says Jeff “the thing that I love about Algolia tools in general, especially around Synonyms and the Dynamic Re-ranking, is that they really help me find the things that are problematic, and in many cases, just take care of them for us.” The results mirror the elation the team had for the products:

  • 65% of their issues are now automatically solved through building synonyms
  • Double digit increase in conversion rate using AI and the Dynamic Re-Ranking.

“It’s really hard to figure out what is and isn’t performing well when you’ve got millions of people coming to the site doing multiple searches each. I love Algolia AI tools because I don’t need a team of people to constantly tweak search.” Jeff Serota, Senior Director of Product Management @ Staples Canada

The results: Seeing opportunity in crisis

With the arrival of Covid-19 in early 2020, ecommerce got a 5 year boost in a matter of months.The Staples CA ecommerce teams were overwhelmed initially, but looked to their core mission of “helping businesses continue to grow and be successful” to guide their actions. While the product mix they were selling didn’t change overnight, how people bought certainly did. Having a dynamic search allowed the team to stay flexible, ensuring they could still get the right products in front of the right people even in a rapidly changing environment. 

Reflecting back on the early days of the pandemic, Jeff notes how proud he is of being able to help Canadians during this time: “we’re not frontline workers, but we are supplying medical offices, hospitals and lots of small businesses across the country who are. We can help by being efficient and effective with the tools that we use such as AI.” 

The Product Management team also saw a pretty immediate shift in their consumer behavior, such as buying ink cartridges for home rather than toner for work. There were also far more purchases for home offices such as desks and chairs, but also complementary accessories such as webcams. With such high demand, popular items consistently went out of stock, which the search team was better able to manage with Algolia, ensuring sold out items were removed or unboosted in search results. 

While still very much in this period of rapid change, Jeff and Diptendu take pride in the businesses and people they have helped so far. As the societal and economic environment continues to evolve, the team feels confident in their ability to stay true to their core mission, while helping Staples CA thrive. 

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