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Stuck on holiday gifts? What happened when I used AI to help with Christmas shopping

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I admit it. I have never been great at coming up with gift ideas. 

I do not have that gift, so to speak, of knowing exactly what someone would like without asking or I worry that they’ll want to return what I ultimately pick. Occasionally, I have hit a home run picking up on an idea for the perfect gift.  

It has also become more difficult as members of our immediate and extended family have gotten older and can buy things themselves. 

Usually, I’ve relied on lists or links from the person or a loved one who is offering some suggestions. 

So when my editor asked me to do a story about using artificial intelligence to help with my holiday shopping, I was intrigued and a little nervous. Would AI be better than me with gift ideas? 

The timing was also appropriate as shortly after I got my assignment, Google announced it was beefing up its AI offering of its “search generative experience” to help shoppers find gifts during the holiday season. 

How do you shop using artificial intelligence or AI?

I first checked in with David Schweidel, a marketing professor at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Georgia. His research specializes in marketing technology and AI. 

I told Schweidel that I was an AI novice, since I had never used Chat GPT or another AI service. But I acknowledged that I’ve likely used AI via everyday apps. 

“That’s one of the things that kind of catches people off guard,” said Schweidel. “AI in our lives is not new, whether we’ve used Google Maps or if you use Alexa or Siri or the spam filter on your email or autocomplete in texts and emails.” 

Now technology companies are taking that user-friendly interface to gather new content from the web to help people with their holiday shopping, he said. 

Schweidel hadn’t had a chance to play with the new upgraded Google AI shopping tool when we spoke, but he had done some AI shopping searches using the subscription version of Chat GPT Plus, which is connected to live searching. 

Schweidel found in toying around on Chat GPT Plus and speaking to someone at Google about its newest feature, that giving more information will get a better outcome. 

The biggest difference, Schweidel said, is this is beyond a “search” or using it as a “search engine” and keywords. 

“Get out of the mindset of saying ‘What’s the key phrase that I put into Google’ and think about this literally as a conversation,” he said. 

“The chat interface helps because the more tailoring you give it, the better output you’re going to get,” he said. 

Schweidel has also used generative AI to make unique images and put those on a gift. He once had an image of a sloth and a sunset generated for his youngest daughter and had the image put on a notebook. 

How did my AI shopping experience go on Google? 

I first started with Google’s Search Generative Experience, which consumers can opt into in Search Labs on the Google app, the Google home page or on Chrome desktop. 

When you start, the normal search results you would expect from a Google search will show up – articles and gift guides, photos of sponsored products. If you’ve opted into the Generative Search Engine, there will also be a button on top that asks “Get an AI-powered overview for this search?”  

I tried “gifts for man who loves disc golf and estate sales and cooking” for my husband. I think I gave it too much to search. It only came up with disc golf things, including a t-shirt one of my kids already got him last year. 

I instead tried “Gifts for cooking lovers.” Many of the searches led me to gift guides, which I could rabbit hole down.

Google invited me to “shop deals,” so I clicked on the link. It was a generalized “deals” page, so I updated the search to “shop deals cooking.” That was overwhelming, too. 

I thought I’d try “gifts for 12-year-old girl” for my niece. But I decided I wasn’t exactly sure what she’d like and that was too risky. I asked her dad for some specific ideas. 

To make myself feel better in the middle of some searches that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, I went to my college son’s list and bought a few things. 

Next, my daughter, who is in her 20s, wanted a nice pullover top for work. 

I entered “Women’s fashion for 20 year olds.” I changed it to “women’s tops and blouses for 20 year olds.” 

I looked through several rows of potential pictures of tops, but didn’t see anything initially that struck my fancy. A picture in a link for a Nordstrom top with some nice bow ties on the ends of the sleeves got my attention. I clicked on it and decided to get it. I made sure there was free shipping and free returns, just in case she doesn’t like it. 

It wasn’t specifically an AI generated gift, but AI did lead me there. 

Google’s AI shopping experience also offers virtual try-on options with certain retailers so a shopper can see what a top looks like on a variety of male and female models of various body types. A feature to generate photorealistic images of what you’re shopping for will also be available in December.

How did AI shopping go with Chat GPT? 

I decided to try Chat GPT. I tried a search for my husband again. 

Chat GPT came up with a number of suggestions, but no links. I asked if it could give me some links. 

Need help with holiday shopping? Google wants you to use artificial intelligence

That’s when Chat GPT told me that it did not have the ability “to generate specific links or browse the internet in real-time. However, I can offer guidance on where you might find the types of gifts mentioned.”

This is what Schweidel had been telling me about. A spokesperson for Open AI, the maker of Chat GPT, confirmed for me that the free version is using information through January 2022, an update from September 2021. The paid version of Chat GPT Plus – which has a waiting list right now – can link to the Internet. 

Instead, Chat GPT gave me some links to general websites. Microsoft, which is one of the largest investors in Open AI, has incorporated the latest GPT-4 used in Chat GPT Plus into its Microsoft Bing search engine. So if you’re going to play around with AI shopping, go to Microsoft Bing instead of Chat GPT’s free version. I tried a few searches with Microsoft Bing and got similar results to my Google shopping searches. It did provide me with pictures and links to items currently available.

Should I worry about privacy while shopping with AI? 

A reader commented on a recent story I wrote about Google’s AI shopping tool saying she was completely against AI for shopping and worried about the privacy implications of AI. 

I asked Schweidel about losing our privacy while shopping with AI – or how much more privacy are we giving up. 

Schweidel said consumers already give away a lot of information when we are online shopping and searching. It comes down to pros and cons, he said. 

“What we often see is people say privacy is important, but when push comes to shove, they’d rather have the digital convenience,” he said.

Schweidel said he sees more players entering the AI shopping field and retailers incorporating it more in future holiday shopping seasons. 

My AI shopping experience verdict

Overall, I would say the experience helped me expand some gift possibilities for people on my list, but it wasn’t a magical personal shopper. I still had to work my way through decisions to choose links to explore or decide that I needed to go in a different direction. 

I can see how it could be helpful to others. I think that as the technology develops and consumers get more comfortable using it, the possibilities will grow. 

For this holiday season, though, most of my shopping was done by clicking on links from relatives. 

Betty Lin-Fisher is a consumer reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at blinfisher@USATODAY.com or follow her on X, Facebook or Instagram @blinfisher.

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