Ben Davis: The dream of voice commerce is fading

Voice commerce may position itself as a seamless way to shop but in reality the services are rarely consumer-friendly and don’t save much (if any) time.

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There is something incredibly elegant about smart speakers. The concept is tantalising.

Voice interfaces just make sense – we naturally assume they will be frictionless. Intuitive interfaces in computing have been regarded by some people as somewhat of a fallacy but smart speakers seem like they might change that. When Amazon’s Echo came along, many people were excited about its potential to improve the lives of people who were not yet computer-literate, such as some elderly users.

The magical potential of smart speakers explains why sales for 2018 have been forecast between 40 million and 90 million units, albeit with plenty of promotion from both Amazon and Google in particular.

However, despite being the fastest-selling gadget since the smartphone, it seems the shine on smart speakers is fading. Michael Wolf, founder of strategy and tech consulting firm Activate, has predicted that sales of smart speakers will peak in 2019. Even more damning, a report by The Information claims that only 2% of Alexa users have used it for commerce and that 90% of that 2% did not make a second purchase, according to a source familiar with Amazon stats. Amazon later disputed the figures.

Retailers and marketers should delay their dalliances with new tech such as voice commerce and even voice experiences until the picture becomes clearer.

These numbers are striking because Amazon touts voice commerce as one of the main features of Alexa, which for most users is otherwise simply a music player, weather forecaster and occasional encyclopaedia. Echo television ads are filled with mildly flustered characters asking Alexa to “add X to my shopping list”. But people in real life don’t seem to be doing so just yet.

The difficulties with voice assistants (and smart speakers in particular) are plentiful. Firstly, despite the ad campaigns, it is difficult to know the extent of their functionality without research or trial and error. And though natural language processing has massively improved, users still have to be savvy in the way they communicate with voice assistants.

As a quote attributed to Brian Ferren goes: “Technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet.” The third party ‘skills’ (the voice version of apps) available through Alexa early on have been developed in a rush to test the possibilities of the tech and not always with the user in mind.

The main issue

But these are not big problems for voice commerce. The main problem is the way that we like to shop. We like to see stuff before we buy it.

Now, I know the Echo Show has a screen, and that voice assistants can be used on a smartphone, but the fundamental point of voice commerce is something that is swifter, more hands-free and more eyes-free than interacting with a screen.

If you asked any ecommerce professional to name the most important feature of an ecommerce site, many would say product imagery. Helping online shoppers have confidence in what they are getting is a big part of converting visitors into sales. And that’s not just for fashion or furniture, imagery is important for online groceries, too. We may not need a HD image of our Findus Crispy Pancakes or the ability to rotate the image 360 degrees, but we certainly need an image of the packet for that instant recognition and reassurance: “Yes, those are the pancakes.”

Even if we become accustomed to asking a voice assistant to add our favourite products to our basket, there are other issues that could make the experience seem redundant. For important and regular orders, consumers are perhaps more likely to set up a subscription with Amazon or direct with the brand in question – weekly dog food deliveries, for example.

What’s more, customers of the major supermarkets’ existing ecommerce services know their favourite products can be easily pre-populated in the basket when they make an order. So shoppers who have a regular delivery slot or pick-up day really don’t save much time using voice.

And, of course, if you don’t already have a favourite brand or version of a product, Amazon is keen to sell you its own brand version (that’s the business model). Such lack of choice is anathema to people used to walking the aisles of a cavernous Tesco Extra.

I’m being a tad unfair – recently Amazon announced that Whole Foods customers can shop through Alexa and if you ask for a generic product you haven’t ordered before, Alexa will choose one based on other customers’ preferences. But it still seems strange to me that to shop with Tesco through Google Home or Echo, users have to find Tesco’s IFTTT (If This Then That) channel and set up a ‘recipe’ or two – not that difficult for the tech savvy but it doesn’t feel consumer-friendly that IFTTT has to be involved.

What’s my point here? Well, as usual it’s that retailers and marketers should delay their dalliances with new tech such as voice commerce and even voice experiences until the picture becomes clearer. I may underestimate the potential of this tech but most people are putting their bets on customer service as the place where natural language processing will make the biggest impact – that means smart chatbots and doesn’t have to mean voice commerce.

Some of us are going to need an extra incentive to ask Alexa to add scouring pads to our shopping list. Life is just too short.

Ben Davis is the editor of Econsultancy.

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Comments
  • Vic Davies 27 Sep 2018 at 9:11 am

    This implies stopping any use. In a way brands are already caught up in trying to find a ‘voice’ where online customers find themselves being given ‘your usual choices’ lists from online grocery orders. You are therefore either locked in or out as brand and legacy brand ads may not be powerful enough to get a consumer to change this choice. How consumers pick and buy brands and their relationship with brands is being changed by technology. In these circumstances dalliance is not the way to go. However rigorous and ongoing testing and research should be the order of the day.

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