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Want those exact shoes? Ask Zappos' new personal assistant

The online retailer known for its fanatical customer service tests digital assistant that helps you track down any fashion item -- even if the company doesn't sell it.

Zappos Labs' Adam Goldstein and Will Young. Inner Circle Labs

In line with its usual philosophy of extreme customer service, Internet shopping site Zappos has introduced a new service that can help you track down any fashion item -- even if the company doesn't sell it.

Called Ask Zappos, the service provides a digital personal assistant who take requests in the form of images and finds the exact item, while also providing links to some alternatives. Zappos has been testing the service since the beginning of June but started promoting Ask Zappos on its mobile homepage last week.

It's another way Zappos' San Francisco-based research and development team, dubbed Zappos Labs, is tapping into social and digital media to reach shoppers. The Amazon-owned company is known for its customer service, which has included quick and easy refunds, sending customers flowers to cheer them up, and speaking with a customer for more than 10 hours -- just because that person needed someone to talk to. It's so central to Zappos' business, every employee, no matter what his or her role, trains for one month at the Las Vegas call center to ensure they understand the process.

"It's really easy to create those amazing experiences on the phone, but that's really hard to do online," Zappos Labs Director Will Young said.

Screenshot by Donna Tam/CNET

Ask Zappos is an attempt to extend Zappos' customer service to digital channels. The company is based in Las Vegas, but the Labs team started in San Francisco in 2010 specifically to test new ways to shop online. Social shopping is picking up steam. In looking for new ways to engage with customers, brands and retailers are trying new methods beyond customer service. Amazon recently launched a way for customers to add items to a shopping cart through tweeting, and Facebook is testing a way for brands to place within the social network.

All the efforts are supported by market data. In the first quarter of 2014, desktop e-commerce spending rose 12 percent over last year to $56.1 billion, the 14th consecutive quarter of double-digit growth, ComScore reported. Apparel and accessories remain a top performing category.

With Ask Zappos, shoppers can send images through different channels, including posting to Instagram with the #AskZappos hashtag, or emailing and text messaging. For now, the entire service is powered by a small team within Zappos Labs. When stylists receive a photo, they look up the product and produce the results. Soon, the team will add image recognition to the mix so part of the process will be automated.

Senior product manager Adam Goldstein said that image recognition technology, which is used to match images, is difficult to perfect when it comes to fashion because it's hard for those algorithms to pick up on specific textures or even clothing logos.

Additionally, Young said, the stylists are much more accurate because they curate products for Zappos, so they can recognize brands and even specific items easily.

"Close enough isn't good enough," he said. "If we wanted close enough, they could just go to Google Image search."

There haven't been a lot of requests yet, but the interactions Ask Zappos has had are involved, with stylists delivering responses the same day and offering other suggestions if shoppers aren't satisfied. The stylists surface links from all over the Web, including the sites of competitors.

Goldstein said it's about getting customers exactly what they want, which is what Zappos is all about. Fresh off his own month-long stint at the Las Vegas center, he said his training validated the idea behind Ask Zappos.

"It's not just wow the customer and give them a good experience," he said. "What's the cherry on top? That is hard to do online because it's so personal."

The Labs team is conducting other online shopping experiments, like a curated digital magazine, a recommendation engine that products results based on Pinterest pins, and personal style recommendations based on Instagram posts.

As with any Labs' experiment, if Ask Zappos becomes a successful service -- that is, a lot of people start using it -- the team will hand it off to colleagues in Las Vegas who can grow the service.

So far, nothing has taken off, but Young is not discouraged.

"For everything we do in Labs -- obviously if it generates sales, great -- but most importantly, we learn about about the way people behave," he said. "We're not trying to build a billion dollars off this, we're just trying to build a great service that our customers will talk about."