The office supplies retailer launches an iOS app feature that allows a shopper to take a photo of her shopping list, and then the products will appear in her app shopping cart.

School supply shopping can be done with a tap, thanks to a new app feature from Staples Inc.

Office supplies retailer Staples, No. 24 in the Internet Retailer 2017 Mobile 500 Guide, on Friday began offering an iOS app feature that allows a consumer to take a photo of her back-to-school shopping list, and within 48 hours her online cart will populate with the products, says Faisal Masud, the retailer’s global executive vice president of e-commerce.

Here’s how it works: On the main page of the app, a consumer taps on the “Shop your school list with a snap” button. When she taps it, her smartphone camera launches to enable her to photograph her list. Staples then uses a combination of human and artificial intelligence to process the list. A tool called optical character recognition determines what’s called a confidence level that determines whether the order can be fulfilled using artificial intelligence or if an employee needs to intervene. Masud declined to disclose the confidence level.

If the image satisfies the confidence level, a Staples bot will match the shopping list item to a Staples product SKU. The bot uses a combination of cloud source data and machine learning to figure out the correct product to put in the shopper’s cart, Masud says. Machine learning is a technology that develops computer programs to teach themselves to grow and change when exposed to new data instead of being explicitly programmed by an individual.

If an image does not reach the proper confidence level, it is sent to a Staples customer service agent, who will match the list with Staples products. This human element is the reason it can take Staples up to 48 hours to complete a request.


After a consumer’s shopping cart is filled, Staples sends a push notification alerting her that her order is ready to complete. A shopper can modify the cart once she sees it, and can purchase in the app and have it shipped to her home, or buy it online and pick it up in a store, Masud says.

Consumers can transmit a typed or handwritten list to Staples, however, a handwritten list will most likely have to be fulfilled by an employee, a Staples spokesman says. Shoppers also can send an image of the school supply list via Staples’ in-app chat feature.

The app feature is in beta, and Staples realizes many consumers have completed the bulk of their back-to-school shopping, Masud says. Staples says it is using this test phase to  gather feedback and apply it  into the next version of the app feature.

“We understand it’s a little late,” Masud says. “We’re looking for something that is ripe and ready for next back-to-school season.”


For example, Staples wants shoppers to tell the retailer how easy or difficult it was to use the tool, how accurate it was at matching SKUs and if Staples missed any items on the list, he says.

Staples also will measure the feature’s success by how many of its iOS app users adopt the feature, Masud says.

Staples had the idea for the feature at the beginning of the year, and it took more than six months to develop, Masud says. The retailer is testing the feature on iOS because iOS users are more likely to purchase than Android users, he says.

Staples is the fifth most popular online destination for back-to-school shoppers in 2016, according to a survey conducted by loyalty and consumer engagement consultancy Brand Keys Inc., which polled 7,580 households between July 29 and Aug. 12. Inc. (No. 1 in the Top 500), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (No. 4), Apple Inc. (No. 2) and Target Corp. (No. 22), led the pack, according to the survey.


“For Staples, back-to-school is our Christmas,” Masud says. “It’s our biggest, most heavy rush both in stores and digitally.”

In fact, web traffic to Staples has steadily increased throughout the summer, leading up to the first day of school. In June, Staples had 21.1 million monthly visits to its site, in July it had 25 million visits and in the first 24 days of August it had 26.9 million visits, according to data from digital analytics firm SimilarWeb.

Staples would like to expand the recognition feature in its app beyond text and into photos. For example, an office administrator would be able to take a picture of a supply cabinet and his online shopping cart would populate with the products he needs, Masud says.