Alexa – Are Americans ready to shop by voice?

Discussion
Source: Amazon
Jul 17, 2019
Tom Ryan

Based on the increased adoption of the devices, eMarketer has raised its forecast for shopping activity on smart speakers. 

The research firm now predicts 31 million U.S. consumers will shop via a smart speaker such as Google Home and Amazon Echo this year, up 31.6 percent from 2018. “Shopping” includes browsing, researching products and adding things to a shopping cart. By 2021, that figure is projected to climb to 38 million when more than four in 10 U.S. smart speakers are expected to be used for their shopping capabilities.

Comparatively, 21 million consumers are expected to make at least one purchase via smart speaker in 2019.

“New users are testing out the shopping-related features of their devices, and early adopters continue to utilize voice to search for products, ask for prices, and more,” said eMarketer senior forecasting analyst, Jaimie Chung, in a statement.

eMarketer noted that a June 2019 survey from Bizrate Insights showed 21 percent of U.S. smart speaker owners had ordered entertainment via their devices compared with the 11 percent who said the same in October 2018. Similarly, 14 percent re-ordered a previously purchased product in June 2019, up from 11 percent in October 2018.

eMarketer still believes the inability to view products is holding back buying. The research firm added that “many smart speaker users are simply uninterested in using their devices for anything other than the tried-and-true functions with which they were meant to assist: news and weather updates, playing music and asking basic questions.”

Other recent smart speaker findings: 

  • Adobe found that 36 percent of U.S. adults owned a smart speaker in February, up from 32 percent in June 2018.
  • SUMO Heavy’s 2019 Voice Commerce survey found only 17 percent of respondents browsed or shopped using a voice assistant. Among heavy users (use daily or weekly), 42 percent have used a voice assistant to shop.
  • The spring 2019 Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research found 58 percent of smart speaker owners worry that hackers could be using their smart speaker to get access to their home or personal information.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Have you become more or less confident that smart speakers will become a major driver of shopping activity? What factors would accelerate or hamper their usage as a shopping tool?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"I see smart speakers being used to purchase household supplies, especially by consumers that are already using Amazon Prime to make these purchases."
"Today, brands and businesses need to create content for their products and services to be found through voice commerce."
"Privacy is a big concern here and needs to be addressed before more widespread adoption, implicit in its capabilities, will be realized."

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57 Comments on "Alexa – Are Americans ready to shop by voice?"


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Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Shopping and buying the simple stuff by speaker sounds like something I could get used to. But the eavesdropping capabilities of these speakers mean that there won’t be one in my house any time soon.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

Smart speakers will definitely play a role in the path to purchase, especially as more and more people incorporate them into their homes. I see smart speakers being used to purchase household supplies, especially by consumers that are already using Amazon Prime to make these purchases. However, when it comes to items like apparel, gifts, and decor, shoppers still want to be able to see what they are purchasing.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

This flies in the face of the survey I did with Oracle NetSuite earlier this year of 1,200 consumers and 400 retailers. We found that 95 percent of consumers don’t want to talk to a robot to buy things. Just 5 percent of consumers selected robots and chatbots as the technologies they most want to utilize – that fits well with Amazon but I doubt many others in a substantial way.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Smart speakers are appropriate only for dumb items like paper towels, and they don’t offer a choice of retailers to purchase them from. The MIT Open Voice Network has identified numerous potential problems in ordering from smart speakers…don’t expect to order a dining set from one any time soon.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Cathy, but could you imagine buying that dining room set on your computer or your mobile phone?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Cathy, Let’s remember that it wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t order even “dumb items” through a computer, let alone your phone. Technology evolves just like people. I remember working with the original “Dragon” voice recognition typing systems longer ago than I care to admit. They were awful, and that’s being charitable, but voice recognition continued to evolve. And as Ben Ball points out, adding video is one more step toward the future of these technologies. It may be a baby step, but it will eventually lead to a powerful stride. As to MIT, it’s true they have identified numerous problems, but that is a prerequisite for creating numerous solutions. You can’t solve technological issues that you haven’t identified. I also think there is a generational element to this discussion. I know many people who view “Alexa” almost as part of their household. Their children engage with their Echo devices as though they were almost invisible friends. And the other day I heard a discussion about the need to teach your children to “thank”… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

This shows what we miss while we are busy reading RetailWire:

Yesterday, Elon Musk announced plans for launching his Neuralink technology — brain implants that he claims will allow disabled people to telepathically control communication devices — very small chips connected to 1,000 wires that measure less than one-tenth of the width of a single human hair connected via Bluetooth to a small computer worn over the ear and a smartphone.

Sort of makes Alexa look like the digital equivalent of your great, great grandmother.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

That would truly be a revolution.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Bob – you are oriented to in-store and salespeople, so the survey results don’t surprise me, even with Oracle leading. I have no idea how the chatbot/AI questions were oriented and to who. The 400 retail executives skew the survey as well — for all questions about customer experience. And Oracle’s own article said “…AI and VR are not yet the answer.” I do agree with “yet.”

Banking is moving to digital in significant ways and every major bank has or is rushing to deploy chatbots and assistants because customers embrace them for easy/speedy results. Those same people shop, particularly online, so retail will not be exempt from chatbots, intelligent assistants and voice interfaces as the technologies improve. Read my comments below and accept that the genie is out of the bottle and that especially kids growing up with AI/voice assistants will expect it everywhere for everything.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

If I’m oriented to stores and actual people then I guess you’re oriented to tech. No matter how much PR cell providers and payment solution providers give to tech it has serious limitations.

No one craves a bot to buy from. They’ll settle for it.

They may use a bot to schedule appointments really well or make food orders or a million things. The article was about Alexa specifically which many commenters noted was good on unbranded commodities, not “shopping.” I stand by the data in the Oracle NetSuite survey much more than yet another opinion on how no one wants to go to a store, wants everything predicted by AI and the future is only digital.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

For transparency: I did not read the report in order to reply to your comment — I read the summary article that you linked to.

I can’t speak for what you think, but it seems like from your history of views about the store being pretty much the whole ball of wax for consumer commerce, most anything else is secondary or invalid to you. I see the balance of consumer-driven technology and human to human interaction and each having a leading role in specific contexts. You did listen to the recent BrainTrust Live! I did with Georgeanne Bender and heard me say essentially that.

Regarding opinions, you’ve injected many in your comment without facts, especially “yet another opinion on how no one wants to go to a store, wants everything predicted by AI and the future is only digital” which I didn’t say or imply.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

For transparency, I attached my reply to one of Bob’s posts above in error.

And, I concur with you that nobody is saying that AI will rule the world; that there will be no analog functionality left in the universe after … oh … say … October 27, 2021; or that nobody will ever go into physical store in the future.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Just because Bob works with retailers and consumers doesn’t take away from his research, in fact it strengthens it.

Surveys these days are all over the place, and they often contradict one another. You have to wonder how many are manipulated to reach the desired conclusion. The Retail Doctor/Oracle NetSuite survey is sound; the opinions of 1200 consumers should not be discounted.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Thanks, Georganne. Clearly, there are battle lines being drawn between AI/tech and those who look to being more human in an increasingly technological world.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Bob,

I’m really not sure it’s an “either/or” choice. Here are some questions we should all be asking:

“What if technology allows us to become more completely human, i.e., develop in new and creative ways since technology has freed us from routine activity?”

“Is the future of humanity linked to some sort of a “pragmatic singularity” where humanity will be augmented by technology?”

“Can we imagine a store where a human employee’s sole role was to address the needs of the customer because everything else was being done by technologies?”

“Is the line separating technology from humanity really all that clear?”

Last week I was reading about a research team that had developed AI that could be housed in glass. Just think of the retail applications if their ideas pan out — Smart Cases, displays that “learn,” real-time problem solving, and on and on and on.

Whatever it will look like one thing is safe to predict about the future: there will be people in it, and technologies. What that interaction finally looks like is anybody’s guess.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Agreed it is complicated. But so much of it is essentially routing the rats to the cheese which to me sounds very limiting and inhuman.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Kind of sounds like marketing to me.

[Please note the tongue firmly placed in cheek]

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Ken,

I, on the other hand, actually did look at the survey.

Among other nuggets, it suggests, “97 percent of consumers agree there is a need to go into a physical store to purchase items.”

So … since the questions were worded in that way, i.e., phrased to give physical retailers the best possible chances, since its hard to imagine doing ALL one’s shopping online — at least today — it’s safe to assume the results were going to be pretty predictable.

As to the question in question (as it were), it appears to have lumped chatbots and robots together as one entity, so there is no (apparent) way to see if they were objecting to robotic interfaces, or voice-activated devices, or both.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

But Bob, whenever we order online aren’t we dealing with a “robot”?

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

No.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I think this is very simple: consumers want to shop! It is social and discovery in the hand. Case closed.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Rich,

But does that automatically preclude new technologies — voice activated, haptic, neurally connected, and more — finding their way into the consumers’ value chain? I don’t think so.

As Gene Detroyer correctly points out on this thread, once upon a time — and not so long ago at that — the idea of ordering a coffee with your phone would have been dismissed as science fiction, just like the notion of a portable computer, or placing orders for clothes, “into the air.”

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

Ryan, you are correct in assuming online purchasing is here to stay and to grow. I’m saying the social side of stores will be with us long after we on this discussion are gone. Creative social retailing will remain.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

When we shop online, if we are not dealing with “robots” (note the quotes), what are we dealing with. Certainly, not human beings?

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

The addition of video to devices like the Amazon Echo “Show” will definitely increase shopping. Our household has smart speakers in practically every room, including the garage. They have become our defacto whole house intercom and music system. But our use of Alexa for shopping was limited to adding items to the shopping list — until the Echo Show replaced the unit in the kitchen. Now the Show is quickly replacing the computer screen as the primary source for browsing, price comparison, etc.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Ben,

Alexa just called. She wants you to pick up a half gallon of milk on the way home. Oh, never mind, she’ll take care of it herself.

On a slightly more serious note, I totally agree with you, especially about the impact of video.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

I am never entrusted with chores of that magnitude — no matter who’s calling! 😉

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Fair point. Sorry, I forgot.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Humans start using voice on the day they are born — it’s innate. So not having a voice shopping option is what’s unnatural. Just like ATM, internet, and mobile adoption, it’s still early on the curve, but when the curve moves along, there is zero doubt voice shopping will be a significant platform — likely within five years. Smart speakers however, are not the best implementation.

For reordering staple products, voice is obvious and convenient and smart speakers can get the job done. When it comes to discovery they are not good and offer no visual product understanding (obviously). There will be a growth of both in-home devices with screens and speakers as well as better integration of voice assistants into mobile and desktop browsers.

So when the real convergence of intelligent assistant, contextual AI, personalization, and multimodal devices occurs, voice shopping will be a booming business.

Karen S. Herman
BrainTrust

Great points here Ken and I’m glad you’ve made the important distinction between voice shopping and smart speakers. I agree that we will be using more sophisticated in-home devices with screens and speakers (I use voice on Xfinity with a remote all the time) and voice assistants will have better integration into mobile and desktop browsers. Eventually, smart speakers will be left behind.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Voice commerce is truly on the rise and is scaling up, however, we are in the age of the smartphone, which will be the dominant form of engagement, discovery, and interactions with brands. For the smart speaker loyalists, it appears as though repeatable purchases, items that need to be replenished, and other commoditized/convenience items are the sweet spot in this new arena.

The challenge for smart speakers is that while it’s extremely convenient, it essentially eliminates several steps of brand engagement, including discovery, comparison shopping, reading reviews and showrooming in the physical locations. Smart speakers will have their place, just not in high fashion, high touch, luxury, and electronics, where there are far more complex paths to purchase.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

No wonder consumers are not fully embracing ordering via voice; Alexa has a hard time understanding what she’s being asked.

I have ordered movies on TV via voice, but I am not interested in buying anything else unless it’s something I know and have used/ordered before. And apparently I am not alone. People still want to see what they are ordering online, even if it’s just in the form of a photo.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

I hear you on the voice recognition, Georganne. Try it with a southern accent! 🙂

Kidding aside, we really don’t have too much trouble with that. What limits Alexa now isn’t her “understanding” I don’t think. Rather, it is that Alexa is not Google — and that’s what we have become accustomed to. They tap into two very different databases (Google’s being infinitely more extensive obviously) and Alexa doesn’t answer questions much beyond “what’s my notification?” at the moment. But that is getting better. What Alexa can do is take your instruction quite well. I like that part!

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Good points! Here’s the thing: I may buy every day necessities via voice but I won’t use it to shop. Shopping requires a deeper interaction. If I said, “Alexa, order me a size medium red long sleeve blouse” who knows what I would receive?

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Not to mention the topic we haven’t brought up yet — from which store? Sure, Alexa drives Amazon purchases. But what about purchases from other stores? Google is trying to lead that, but the added complexity of choosing items PLUS which store to get them from, and then the level of automation required to fulfill that multi-store order I just created via voice is something completely different.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I utilize Alexa for items I know. To “shop”? Nope. I want to see what I am shopping for, thereafter, I probably will be more than comfortable with just Alexa. But for quick information on products, Alexa is my choice of convenience.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

Couldn’t agree more, Rich. I think Alexa is helpful for “buying” in terms of executing mundane, repeat purchases, but not for “shopping.” I also want to see what I’m buying and what the options are. Plus, shopping can be fun 🙂

Chris Buecker
BrainTrust

Voice will be the next disruptor! No doubt about it. It will only be a question of time until voice commerce becomes normal in our daily life. The main argument is CONVENIENCE! But then questions about ownership will arise. The voice assistants are dominated by Google, Amazon and Apple. How will retailers cope with it? If retailers do not want to be bypassed by these tech giants, then an open voice network is desperately needed.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Consumer technology adoption grows as technology becomes relevant, convenient and easy. Smart speakers are being used by more households each year because the basic uses, as articulated in the survey in the article, are definitely relevant and easy, however the challenge has been and still is convenience — when convenience includes the fact that the technology’s natural language processing becomes accurate. My neighbor asked her speaker to “play jazz music” and hip hop music played instead. Consumers don’t want the speaker to misunderstand their commands when they’re actually spending money on shopping. Adoption will occur, but only as the tech becomes accurate.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Voice commerce will take off when the Powers That Be understand that the human decision to purchase is not based on linear decision trees. Rather it is based on a cognitive process, human emotion driven by individual sensory preferences. Visual is only one aspect of the sensory profile of a product. Voice commerce will take off when technologies are implemented by Alexa et.al. eliciting individual human preference intelligence used as an agent to filter through millions and millions of individual sensory profiled product SKUs. No visuals needed. Retail product feeds are jam-packed with sensory data waiting to be translated into sensory intelligence. It is WAY past time for retailers to apply retail common sense to the digital world.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

“It is WAY past time for retailers to apply retail common sense to the digital world.” Spot on!

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Conversational voice shopping just feels natural so yes, I expect it to gain adoption, however the real question is in what product categories. There are certain product categories where shoppers simply must see the item before committing to buy. For commodity household items – cleaning products, batteries, etc. – especially products you already know very well, yes, consumers will buy them via voice. Alexa devices are present in almost every room of our home and are mostly used for music, news, and weather, as well as telling the kids a bedtime story. When it comes to shopping, we’ve only used them to reorder items like batteries and the occasional cleaning product. Of course, we’ve also succumbed to asking Alexa about the latest deals, particularly during Prime Day – however, we didn’t buy any of them. Discovery of new, unfamiliar products is still a bit too unnatural without a screen to see the item so there are some definite hurdles to overcome to make this as mainstream as a smartphone!

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

It’s a matter of hitting critical mass. The numbers don’t lie. Shopping through a smart device is becoming more popular. Think about how the airlines taught most of us to book online and check-in online. The same thing will happen with voice shopping.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
I’ve become more confident, if that’s even possible. While “omnichannel” — Lord, how I loathe that word — promoters keep arguing about designing antiquated platform-based solutions, they are missing a critical point, interfaces trump platforms every day. I’ve boiled this down to a handy, easy to remember acronym — ITIS — which stands for, “It’s The Interface Stupid.” Smart speakers are not limited, (at least in theory) by channel. There’s no reason Alexa couldn’t place an order to be picked up at an IGA instead of being delivered by Amazon. And nothing is easier than talking, especially if smart speakers REALLY become smart. Why type? It’s a less pragmatic interface, and humans are all about following the path of least resistance. I know all the arguments. What about Alexa, Siri, and the whole digital speaker sorority “eavesdropping” on your most intimate moments? What about demented grandparents ordering nukes off the Internet? And, how about those darn kids who order the strangest things? All easily worked around today with existing technology. A special note about privacy.… Read more »
Ben Ball
BrainTrust

And I can’t wait for the day my friend! This from the man whose favorite saying is:
“I have time for neither man, beast nor machine who isn’t intelligent enough to do what I was thinking, as opposed to what I actually said.”

Now, I can think of some issues with that — but…

David Dorf
BrainTrust

Shopping by voice works for some basic scenarios, but it will never capture the majority of shopping. I do think adoption will accelerate from here when more cars are equipped, but then it will hit a plateau and level off.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Once upon a time did we ask “Have you become more or less confident that PCs will become a major driver of shopping activity?” Or later, “Have you become more or less confident that smart phones will become a major driver of shopping activity?”

In answering this question, consider not the limitations of the smart speakers that we have today, but the innovative progress from that first mobile phone to today’s smartphones. There is no reason to believe that the smart speaker won’t innovate in the same way.

Imagine as technology becomes more integrated, you walk into the room and say “let’s go shopping” to you smart voice device. Your TV screen lights up and you are on your way. In essence, all we are talking about is a voice device replacing a keyboard.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Gene,

And that’s the real point. The easier the interface — and what, for most people, is easier than talking — the more robust the application over time.

Love your first paragraph. Really says it all.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Isn’t this really about convenience? When shopping by voice is more convenient than pulling out a smartphone to buy a given item, that purchase will move to voice shopping from mobile shopping.

Today, this works for simple items like soap, batteries, etc. Not so much for apparel — but what happens when the AI assistant knows what brands you like, what size you wear, and what colors/styles you like? You can see this beginning with items like socks and underwear potentially, then moving on to basics.

Some items, like Cathy’s dining room set, might be too much of a stretch for quite some time. However, it wasn’t too long ago we were having these same conversations about Amazon dash buttons and IoT based shopping and replenishment.

As each modality becomes more convenient than the previous one, shoppers mindsets will shift and adoption will increase.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

At some point, we’ll also have to stop referring to these things as “smart speakers” since that implies they’re just an advanced music playing device. It’s a bit misleading, and you could imagine a survey asking a series of questions related to shopping by voice with a “smart speaker” as being misleading to many consumers.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Yes, Ricardo, I don’t know where the term came from. “Smart speakers.” Like “smart phones”?

Brent Biddulph
BrainTrust

The ability for smart speakers to better interact with screens may likely be the acceleration that allows it to move beyond simply an entertainment device to an actual shopping enabler. It allows customers to overcome any uncertainties by being actually able to “see” products and pricing before giving the “order” command. Especially for basics and commodity goods that could be prompted by AI infused “auto-replenishment” nudges.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

As digital assistants continue to become more mainstream and consumers become accustomed to new behaviors, researching and shopping by voice command will replace the “big browser experience” as the main form of search.

With more than 32% of U.S. consumers now owning a smart speaker (according to research by Adobe Analytics), and growing quickly, it is easy to see the possibilities. As consumers become more comfortable with digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa, conversational commerce will evolve to become an expected mode of communication and commerce for consumers.

I believe what is hampering more widespread adoption is the “big brother” fear that someone is listening to whatever is being said in range of the speaker. Privacy is a big concern here and needs to be addressed before more widespread adoption, implicit in its capabilities, will be realized.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust
Voice is a natural interactive communication medium. Human-computer interfaces are evolving and will increase in adoption as long as they bring greater (and redefine) convenience, speed, and accuracy. Shopping is one of many existing applications for the voice interfaces and I expect it to catch on beyond simple purchases and to more categories. Also, and as disturbing as this may be to some, they can create a trusted, personalized connection, and even be considered a member of the family. Think of the voice interface as a 21st century consumer operating system. It’s highly personal, fast, increasingly loaded with the latest AI capabilities with real-time processing, and the full potential to be fully embedded in one’s daily life. Control the voice interface and you “own” the future. But there’s a huge caveat. Before that can be realized, we will have to make explicit — and solve — the very thorny issues of privacy, and data ownership and control. Without a clear, gobbledygook-free privacy policy and a new data paradigm shift that privileges consumers, the promise of… Read more »
Karen S. Herman
BrainTrust

Yes, I am confident that voice assistants and voice commerce will play a significant role in the shoppers path-to-purchase in the future. Voice commerce is frictionless and makes shopping faster and easier. Adaption by consumers is important and already taking place, as Jaimie Chung states … “New users are testing out the shopping-related features of their devices, and early adopters continue to utilize voice to search for products, ask for prices, and more.”

Today, brands and businesses need to create content for their products and services to be found through voice commerce. When 5G rolls out and all of our connected IoT devices are super fast and most smartphones are AR enabled, voice commerce will be a significant factor.

James Tenser
BrainTrust
Wow it took some time for me to scroll and digest all the great interactions in this thread. If only my smart speaker could have just read it to me…. Kudos to Ryan for calling out “the whole digital speaker sorority” in his comments. My favorite phrase in the whole thread. I agree with others here that these devices are (so far) better suited for keeping shopping lists and item-replenishment ordering and not too useful for browsing higher-consideration goods. Yes, newer devices with screens may change the game somewhat — but aren’t those really just tablets on tables? I can do all that stuff on a refurbished 7-inch Fire that cost me 25 bucks on Woot. And I can carry it around the house. But … I don’t. At least not regularly. I don’t think I’m a Luddite. It’s just that the use cases are still in their infancy and it will take millions of consumer interactions for these platforms to refine their functionality. It will also take millions of interactions for consumers to refine… Read more »
Christopher P. Ramey
BrainTrust

Time is the ultimate currency. The winner will be the technology that saves time while fulfilling ones desires comfortably and seamlessly. Voice is fine for one-off purchases of regularly acquired products. I don’t see it as the long-term victor.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"I see smart speakers being used to purchase household supplies, especially by consumers that are already using Amazon Prime to make these purchases."
"Today, brands and businesses need to create content for their products and services to be found through voice commerce."
"Privacy is a big concern here and needs to be addressed before more widespread adoption, implicit in its capabilities, will be realized."

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