Google Home – the tech giant’s virtual assistant – launches today. Retail Week looks at how voice technology can transform how we shop.
“You wouldn’t bet against Amazon or Google,” says Maplin’s chief executive Oli Meakin, referring to the two online giants’ respective forays into voice technology.
Amazon rolled out its voice-activated smart home Echo device, equipped with virtual assistant Alexa, last year.
“It is early days for voice technology but it is an area that is quickly gaining traction”
Users can ask Alexa to add items into their Amazon shopping list. Last month, Amazon even added Prime Now shopping capabilities to Alexa in the US so users can order products for same-day delivery.
Google was hot on the heels of the etailer. Its Home device – complete with aptly named virtual assistant Assist – goes on sale in the UK today.
The tech firm has also added voice ordering capabilities to its Google Home device in the US, with products from retailers including Whole Foods, Walgreens and Bed Bath & Beyond available to purchase.
Voice search gains traction
It is early days for voice technology but it’s an area that is quickly gaining traction.
According to research by Accenture, voice searches went from contributing a statistical zero to global searches, to more than 10% in 2015.
This number has continued to climb, and last year Google reported that 20% of mobile searches by US Android device users were made by voice.
If shoppers have the opportunity to not only ask questions to their Alexa or Assist, but buy products by saying what they want verbally, what does this mean for retailers?
Accenture’s managing director and retail practice lead for UK, Ireland and Europe Rick Murray thinks that the grocery sector is the mostly likely industry to be disrupted by the rise of voice technology.
“Grocery is the most obvious area for disruption, both for mundane commodity items but also for inspiration,” he says.
Murray gives the example of shoppers asking their Echo or Home device for suggestions of recipes with specific dietary requirements, which could then be converted into a shopping list, adding even more convenience to online shopping.
“If shoppers have the opportunity to not only ask questions to their Alexa or Assist, but buy products by saying what they want verbally, what does this mean for retailers?”
He adds that the benefits of voice technology could also be extended to retailer’s bricks-and-mortar estate.
“Imagine if I add things to a shopping list or even tell the voice device what sort of food products I’m thinking about at that point, and then in the future my voice device buys them for me or reminds me of them when I next walk into a supermarket by linking to my mobile app,” he says.
The ability to immediately order household essentials is the most obvious use for voice-enabled retail.
However, Schuh’s director of ecommerce Sean McKee is unconvinced that the technology currently has significant implications for the wider retail sector, and says it is low on his list of investment priorities.
“It will be a game-changer if it dovetails in a way that makes sense with artificial intelligence and helps us eliminate friction in the customer journey – but at the minute voice is not a good place to buy anything,” he says.
Marketing risks and opportunities
The early iterations of voice-enabled technology present an opportunity for specialist retailers to educate their customers.
“Voice-enabled devices are a great way of democratising the smart home and will accelerate adoption in smart home technology,” says Meakin.
“However, it’s still quite a new market and quite complex, so it requires advice and people will want to come talk to someone who can explain how it works, so we see it as an opportunity in that respect.”
“The ability to immediately order household essentials is the most obvious use for voice-enabled retail”
Meakin adds that while shoppers may use voice technology to order small items such as groceries and books, he is sceptical that there will be much traction using voice to make big-ticket purchases.
Planet Retail’s head of global technology Miya Knights does not think that voice commerce will be “particularly transformative” in its impact on how consumers shop.
However, she believes it could significantly impact search and how retailers market online.
“We know that shoppers will not go past the second or third page of a Google search result – voice will be like that on steroids,” she says.
Knights says that retailers will need to start tailoring their online search capabilities to factor in the search algorithms of virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, as only the very top results will win sales as a result.
“We know that shoppers will not go past the second or third page of a Google search result – voice will be like that on steroids”
Planet Retail’s head of global technology Miya Knights
While the long-term implications of voice commerce on the retail sector is not yet clear, Murray stresses that retailers would be remiss to not consider how the technology will affect online and bricks-and-mortar shopping in the next few years.
“Retailers need to be thinking now about the technology that younger generations have been brought up understanding and experiencing,” he says.
“I might be nervous about using voice ordering technology, but my children will be completely fine with it.”
Indeed, with Accenture research finding that 38% of millennials are willing to try voice-activated ordering and 10% have already used it, the influence of voice on consumers shopping habits could just be warming up.