Report says voice commerce is all talk

Discussion
Source: Amazon
Aug 08, 2018
Matthew Stern

Shopping via voice assistant has become one of the most discussed trends in the world of retail technology. But recently-released numbers indicate that, at least for now, predictions of the ascendency of Alexa voice commerce could be all talk.

Only about two percent of the 50 million people who own and use Alexa-ready devices have used them to make a purchase in 2018 so far, according to The Information. And of those who did use Alexa to shop, 90 percent did not try it more than once. Far more frequently, voice assistants are being used for simple tasks like playing music and getting weather reports.

Confirmation of a low rate of adoption for voice shopping comes as the two major players in the space, Amazon.com and Google, have been competing to bring retailers and shoppers into their voice shopping ecosystems. 

For instance, Amazon recently announced that it is introducing the ability for Alexa users to add Prime Now orders from Whole Foods to their shopping carts, as reported on Venture Beat. Last year, Walmart inked a deal with Google to make hundreds of thousands of items available via Google Assistant.

Since the advent of voice assistants and moves by major tech companies to get people shopping on their platforms, there has been widespread speculation on what a voice-based future may look like. 

Some have argued that, in a world where voice assistants are the main facilitators of purchases, the big tech companies will have ultimate control over which CPG staples consumers purchase, requiring many manufacturers to establish direct-to-consumer relationships to survive. 

The model of ordering Prime Now products from Whole Foods described by Venture Beat does have the potential to generate this type of brand lock-in. When consumers utter generic terms such as “cheese,” “meat” or “milk”, Alexa picks products based on previous order history and the behavior of other customers. Alexa does ask the customer for confirmation after each item is added to the list nor allow for a review of the full order at checkout.

The model could be even rougher on CPGs if Amazon were to prioritize its private label products as default items. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What would have to change to get people to shop via Alexa and other voice assistants? Will the voice commerce revolution come off as planned? If so, how might it affect CPG brand marketing?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"If most users use voice-activated assistants for simple tasks, maybe that’s all we want them to do."
"I speak with Alexa every morning, I don’t have a doubt that voice commerce will be utilized, not as quickly as planned or desired, but it will come."
"Voice-assisted shopping has two big barriers to overcome: complexity and changing habits."

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32 Comments on "Report says voice commerce is all talk"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This underlines how the impact of some technologies in retail are over-hyped to the point of silliness. The question is, why would people shop by voice? For many products there is no need as shopping online with the click of a mouse or the tap of a phone is already easy enough. In other categories, the ability to see the product — either physically or virtually — is important and voice does not deliver that.

That doesn’t mean voice doesn’t have a place in shopping: search, querying prices, checking on order status, etc. are all things voice can help with. But actually buying a product, not so much.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I agree. And it’s a captive audience for Amazon. Probably marginally more likely to be successful than the unexplainable Dash buttons.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

I also agree. Being able to see a product, online or in-store is such an important part of purchasing. People will use voice as part of the shopping process, but probably not to actually complete the transaction.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Unless you feel the need to change brands, how many times must you see or experience toilet paper, canned soup, or boxer shorts? I think many people are like me and have more fulfilling interests and time constraints of more value than shopping for what most goods are realistically (outside of hobbies or gifts): consumable necessities and mundane items. So for me and them, a couple of quick phrases to make a purchase from anywhere is potentially extremely convenient, extremely fast, and adds a lot of life value.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Yet the vast majority of people are not using voice.

Perhaps the issue is in the fact that most people will order soup and toilet paper as part of a wider grocery shop and doing a larger shop is not quite as convenient and easy when using voice. Besides if you want über-convenience, you can initiate automated re-ordering.

As for boxer shorts, I take the point — but many people do like to see (digitally or physically) apparel before purchasing, even for mundane items.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Neil — I’m not sure what your basis is for assessing voice shopping and if you are only gauging voice interfaces, AAs, and voice shopping by a couple of current implementations by companies with very jaded interests, because that would be a short-sighted view of the next decade or more. Alexa and Google Assistant today are very clumsy and absolutely don’t leverage AI in a meaningful or convenient user-centered manner, despite Amazon fanboy pundits writing otherwise.

Maybe you aren’t familiar with the early days of the Internet (see my comment below), but in the ’90s, similar arguments were made against the web and e-commerce and I think it has improved markedly, will continue to, and will continue to erode physical retail, despite some product categories that surely will always be best experienced in person.

Also, have a look at what is being touted as a seamless commerce experience: I see it as a clunky early implementation that voice interaction would unquestionably streamline.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

What’s interesting is that the arguments against the web remain valid. It has turned into a buying mechanism — but even 20 years removed it hasn’t been able to become a good shopping mechanism.

Many of those arguments were made against the incredible late 1990s claims that “everything” would become online shopping … That stores would disappear because they’re not needed, etc.

Yet while there are category exceptions, overall online shopping after 20 years remains around 10% of total revenue.

Where what you suggest is valid is that voice technology might become better and that might help it expand some. So, in 20 years, perhaps 5% of voice devices will be used for shopping.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust
Hmmm … I find the web to be a very good shopping mechanism for the right products, like the recurring non-perishable food/supplement and CPG products we buy. I do not want in-store experiences for them. Unfortunately, the e-commerce merchants we use don’t have a voice assistant (yet?) so rather than logging in and pulling up old orders or at one merchant a categorized list of items, we’d be able to speak a couple of sentences and be done in seconds. Far, far less frictionless than screen-based UIs which are still delivering a superior experience than driving to stores to pick up those known products, some of which are not available in stores. Ten percent of commerce online today — that’s just a point in time. You could have said less than one percent in 1999. So what does that prove? The upward trend has not stopped and is unlikely to for years to come. No one has an accurate means to predict the future especially based upon shopper polls, so your five percent voice shopping… Read more »
Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

As a quick observation, Ken, it sounds like what you call “shopping” is really buying. Once a purchase is “recurring” there’s no shopping involved — perhaps some price checking.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust
I thought this topic was well explored but since you want to split hairs: Okay, I’ll accept that. We’ll divide purchasing into “shopping” and “buying.” There’s no way in hell you can convince me that a majority of products purchased via consumer visits to a physical store is shopping and not buying. For that to be true, every grocery item purchased is an exploration of the virtues of the micro-category, tomato soup for example, as is every CPG item like paper towels or bar soap. No. It also doesn’t wash for lots of other items. Just yesterday via PC, I purchased a non-chemical weedkiller that I first researched via a trusted online merchant, yet purchased from another because of a substantial discount. Home Depot has it as well, web only, so going to the store would have been fruitless. I doubt it’s available on any shelf in the area. And the trusted merchant has about eight products to compare in the micro-category, I’m very certain Home Depot does not have that even online. So that… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust
Hey Ken. My observations are based on all of our research, but especially our research among consumers — which is qualitative, quantitative and observational. From that, it is clear that most people do not value voice as a way to buy — though they are much more receptive to using it as a way to search out information or get details about delivery or orders. It is also clear that shoppers do not feel voice solves many issues — for example, the supposed “hassle” of having to buy laundry detergent isn’t really that much of an issue for most consumers and, even where it is, they have other ways of mitigating it such as automatic subscription ordering. I don’t doubt that voice will grow and become more important, but I don’t believe that it will come to dominate retail or even have as much of an impact as the internet has had. And for some things, people will always prefer physical. That’s less about the technology and more a recognition of the fact that consumers… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I don’t know. How many times do you want to see if Amazon has changed the price? Like every day?

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

As I see it, there are two things holding back conversational commerce: the challenges of product discovery and (ironically) the complexity of the process. Until product discovery gets easier, Alexa will be limited to FMCG and replenishment orders. And in that time, Amazon will capture the lion’s share of the commerce, because ordering via voice today is pretty complex. All skills require very specific commands, and for infrequently-used skills, it can be hard to remember the exact syntax required to execute that skill. So both things need to improve before mass adoption can occur, in my opinion.

Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

Clearly it will take more time for adoption than originally expected. From experience, Google Home does grow on you. It may take a while for people to get used to asking voice assistants general questions, and asking them to do simple tasks for them, before the commerce part starts to really grow.

It feels like a parallel to wireless data in the late ’90s. It was the breakout year for wireless data — for about a decade. It feels like déjà vu.

What this does is buy CPG brands and retailers the opportunity to learn. We need to figure out how to make sure voice-commerce does not gravitate to just the lowest price, or Amazon’s private label brands. The questions will be — what are the levers that drive voice commerce search? How do you influence it? CAN you influence it other than by offering the lowest price (for automated purchases)? How do marketers play the NEW SEO game of achieving top ranking for voice commerce?

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I have to agree with Neil. This may be another case of technology looking for a problem.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Xerox thought the personal computer wouldn’t amount to much in 1960.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust
It’s déjà vu all over again. Anyone that can at least remember the Mosaic browser (there were earlier ones too) understands the tech adoption curve. I wasn’t there, but it was probably the same for the sewing machine, motorcar, and TV. I think radio had a very steep curve. It’s early days. I’ve been working with VUIs (Voice User Interfaces) and AAs (Artificial Assistants) for over six years, but I’m a tech guy and stay ahead of the curve. Most people on the street think that Apple or Amazon invented them and are still getting used to the idea. In time, this conversation will be as dated as discussing whether hydraulic brakes will ever be on all cars. At that point, voice-based shopping will be the norm (as is web browsing and mobile) including all the issues that it will bring such as: Unlike visual ads on a web page, aural ads slow down/interfere with efficiency; Paid placement and/or platform-owned brand suggestions will taint trust with AA’s or shopping assistants; Those brands without their own… Read more »
Bob Amster
BrainTrust

We have thrown a lot of new technology at the consumer in the last five years and we continue that trend. It takes time and a desire to try new things before they become generally adopted by the consuming public. Voice ordering will happen over time, with the upcoming younger generations eventually making it mundane.

There is a possibility, however, that if customers are not allowed to specify brand or re-order (the previously-ordered brand), external forces may decide what they want the consumer to buy. CPG brands may start paying online retailers for preferred placement on voice-ordering systems like they do on supermarket shelves.

Jeff Sward
Guest

I’m guessing this is generational. People over 40 might not embrace it quickly or fully, but I suspect that has nothing to do with how Millennials and younger generations will embrace voice commerce. Don’t want to be heard shopping in public spaces? I saw a gizmo the other day — a mouth mask if you will. It mutes your voice to the outside world when you’re on the phone. Office mates hear nothing. That may remove some of the reluctance to voice shop. It sounds nutty, but sometimes that’s the gears of evolution grinding away.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Sometimes I think companies look for too many options for technologies: “It can do this and this and this and … “ but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the consumer.

If most users use voice-activated assistants for simple tasks, maybe that’s all we want them to do. I’m with the rest of the BrainTrust here: Alexa et al. may have a place in my shopping research, but not as the final path to purchase piece.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

Voice-assisted shopping has two big barriers to overcome: complexity and changing habits. Complexity involves making it easier to make sure the voice assistant gets exactly the right product that the customer wants. This is much easier for items consumers buy routinely, but first-time orders are challenging. Another element of complexity is that if it takes longer or is frustrating, consumers will give up.

From a habit perspective, consumers have their own buy habits and processes that work best for them. Trying something new requires additional effort and effort is time, and nobody has a lot of time to spare. To accelerate adoption, retailers will need to offer special discounts on first orders through voice assistants to get more consumers to try the technology and cross their fingers that some of them will adopt it.

It is a long road ahead for voice commerce and it is unclear when, or if, it will be a relevant part of shopping.

Ray Riley
BrainTrust

I believe voice could be the intermediary technology that drives the next massive change in commerce. As a metaphor, in computing and file storage there was the floppy disk (1.5MB) and then there was the CD-ROM (700MB), but many people forget the ZIP drive that was massively influential in bridging that gap in consumer need with capacity ranging from 100MB-750MB. This hardware eventually fell out of favor. I believe the same is true with voice assistants in their current form, as the technology could quickly evolve to in-ear, optical (applying the visual product element in multi-dimensions or via AR), or a wrist solution with holographic capacity. Sounds a little Star Trekky perhaps, but not far from reality.

Mark Price
BrainTrust

On the scale of technology adoption described by Geoffrey Moore in his book “Crossing the Chasm”, voice ordering is at the early adopter stage. The early majority are waiting for the early adopters to spread the word that the technology is ready for prime time. I have no doubt that voice ordering via Alexa, Google or Siri will become widespread. The question is just when the tipping point comes. Given the rapid pace of technology adoption today, I would imagine that we will see voice ordering becoming prevalent within the next two years.

For packaged goods brand marketing, there will be more emphasis placed on marketing via these devices. There is also substantial risk, as noted in the article, that the technology providers may substitute their private label products whenever a brand is not designated by a customer.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

“Voice commerce” is far from being the norm. The tipping point is not here, but it is getting closer even if the adoption is slower than anticipated. People just need to try it, have a good experience and have it become a habit. It takes time to form habits, and using the voice commands on Alexa, Siri, etc. will take time.

Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

Clearly reports of “The Age of Voice Commerce” have been overstated. But if CPG companies (and others) wait for Amazon and other assistant manufacturers to completely figure things out, they will be left out of the story. Much of the shopper marketing industry was founded on “getting on the list.” This will never have been more critical if and when the future becomes auto-replenishment (via voice or other). Testing, learning and adapting is the order of the day now and forever more.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust
Missing in this article is the fact people/shoppers will still have individual preferences, whether for soup or toilet paper, let alone items like socks, which people actually wear on their bodies. Shopping is not a utility, like a browser or a floppy disk. Shopping is personal with outcomes, and if lousy, can ruin an otherwise good day. Turning one’s life over to Alexa as a shopping convenience has yet to work because people are not lemmings. Yes, Alexa is clunky, and yes, a new way of shopping takes time to adapt to, but it is more than that! Fundamentally for voice to work, technologists need to shift from linear, computer science decision trees, inferred behavior or collaborative filtering, etc. techniques and focus on the way humans cognitively make the decision to purchase; human emotion and individual sensory preferences. Imagine voice-activated, mobile shopping experiences “Alexa, I need a pair of black pants.” “Siri, I need a dress to wear to the Smith wedding.” This is the chasm Alexa, Siri and Google need to cross. Not “Alexa… Read more »
Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

What seems lost in the discussion is that most people who shout loudly that voice shopping will succeed have significant incomes. Yet the success of voice shopping will depend on those with tight incomes — where there’s no disposable income to absorb mistakes.

The perspective we need to take is to consider ordering Scope but getting Soap instead. What would your response be if you earned minimum wage in a service job?

People take considerable care with their money — something that seems lost on the digerati that push many ridiculous shopping ideas.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

The adoption of voice command will take time as consumers become comfortable with the process AND accept/trust the medium. There have already been many publicized cases of misuse and loss of privacy through this technology. Voice recognition and command will become part of our normal lives, but it will be a journey to get there. From a merchandising point of view, I suspect private label preferences will be common and large CPG brands will need to manage and demand accountability of their marketing and merchandising funds as these funds will certainly be used to promote and prioritize competitive products.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I speak with Alexa every morning, and I don’t have a doubt that voice commerce will be utilized, not as quickly as planned or desired, but it will come. Sometimes I think the general public feels like they are in a high tech tennis match, where seven balls are being served to them at the same time — I feel that way at times. When it comes to technology, be patient with consumers … it will come.

Min-Jee Hwang
BrainTrust

Voice shopping could one day be a part of the omnichannel experience, but it doesn’t feel like that day is soon. Other omnichannel developments, even eCommerce itself, were grounded in the convenience offered to shoppers. I just don’t see that same offer here, especially now. Perhaps voice shopping will eventually simplify some part of the experience, but at the moment voice is better for the simpler commands than as a buying tool.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Voice assistants are solutions looking for a problem. There isn’t one. We are a visual society, and as such, we are visually driven. We can easily identify something by a picture, rather than its name. This is why the Internet is visually driven (instead of voice driven), TV is so successful, our shopping patterns are visually focused, etc. Voice plays a minor role in our shopping behaviors, interactions and preferences. To this end, voice assistants will continue to be a minor role player in our shopping lives.

Kevin Simonson
Guest

Great article, thanks for the topic. I think when any new technology starts, there will be natural gaps in the functionality. But leads to opportunities. Issues like semantic keyword search, automation, AI assisting people while driving for safety, this is the future for sure. As for retail, it’s going to be tricky to figure out how it fit into the mix.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"If most users use voice-activated assistants for simple tasks, maybe that’s all we want them to do."
"I speak with Alexa every morning, I don’t have a doubt that voice commerce will be utilized, not as quickly as planned or desired, but it will come."
"Voice-assisted shopping has two big barriers to overcome: complexity and changing habits."

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