Voice Assistants Are Changing Shopping—Are You Ready?

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Voice shopping will reach $40 billion by 2022, according to research from OC&C Strategy Consultants. Although the market is still in its early stages today, shoppers are already finding benefits to using voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. According to research from OnBuy, 27.3% of American consumers praised their hands-free nature, while 20.7% enjoy being able to shop while doing other things, and 18.9% said that such assistants provide faster results and answers than other search methods. Voice shopping will only become more prevalent going forward, and retailers must take an interest in the technology or risk being left behind.

Experts agree that voice shopping is currently in its early stages, but they see that changing as the technology matures. “There are a few use cases that are essentially the first to be adopted, [for example] set a timer or play some music. But the next level is that buying experience,” says Scott Stephenson, cofounder and CEO at Deepgram. Imagine you’re in the shower—or the car or kitchen—and your hands are occupied but you just remembered you need to buy something. “You can just say ‘Hey Alexa’ or ‘Hey Google, I need to buy a new pan’ or whatever it is you’re thinking about,” he says. “There are these points in our lives where we have time and we’re free to talk and listen and we’re thinking about these things.”

He goes on to say that the strength of voice assistants lies in their ease of use. “Amazon in particular is interested in making that experience really easy for you. If you have to log in to your phone to order [something] that way, it takes probably 10 or 15 minutes to go through that process,” Stephenson says. “But if you can just order it and have a little conversation just like you would with your own human personal assistant…that’s a three-second transaction.”

Nikki Hallgrimsdottir, evangelist and cofounder at Algo.ai, provider of an enterprise AI platform, uses the iPhone as an example of how the maturation process for voice shopping might play out. “When the iPhone came out, it really took the app store taking off and lots of people providing lots of different apps for apps to become the default way to do lots of things. What we need to see in the voice-enabled technology space is both more players creating the infrastructure and more technology to enable companies that have fewer resources to create their skills and get them out there—for that to be more plug-and-play. There is definitely more room to go for a mom-and-pop e-commerce store to be able to effectively put out a voice assistant to help people shop for their products,” she says.

Going forward, experts predict a couple of scenarios retailers will face with incorporating voice shopping into their business models. Stephenson suggests that ads delivered through voice assistants will become prevalent. “[If you think about] a Shopify store and pay for ads to drive traffic to your store or pay for Instagram ads to do the same thing with a video, you’re going to have a parallel to that in voice land,” he says. “This platform does not exist yet—it’s going to be a couple years in the future where you start to see ads that are coming through a Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, but they’ll be specific to that platform. It’s not going to be an image, it’s not going to be a video playing, it’s going to be voice-oriented or sound-oriented.”

Hallgrimsdottir says that to gain an advantage, retailers should establish relationships with startups as well as the big players in the space. “If you’re a retailer today, you obviously will have an omnichannel e-commerce strategy, and you probably have a big cloud provider you’re working with,” she notes. “It’s important to not just listen to whatever your technology rep or the main company you’re working with has to offer—it might be the easiest way to integrate it into your system, but you want to be aware of what startups are doing in the space. Try to have somebody that’s interested enough to follow along with the research.”

She adds that larger players can go a step further by having their own technology incubators, such as Walmart’s Store No. 8. She says, “What you can do as a large player…is pull in startups that are developing technology in the space that you can then have a proprietary relationship with that may give you a competitive advantage going forward.”

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