Market Spotlight: Retail

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Traditional  retail settings have quickly become a significant market for speech technologies as companies look to improve cust-omer service, communicate on customers’ terms, drive cost reductions, improve operations, and increase revenue with targeted up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.

The technologies have proved themselves capable of handling routine tasks, such as requesting a catalog; ordering a product (in fact, many have found that orders placed through speech systems are, on average, larger than orders placed through human operators); checking order status; processing payments; or finding the nearest store.

But for years, more upscale retailers have resisted speech technologies for fear that automation could never offer the same level of customer service as a human being. While automated solutions may never completely master the red-carpet treatment that some retailers expect from their customer service personnel, a growing number of high-end retailers are finding voice-powered digital assistants to be just as good, if not better, than agents in certain situations. One example of this is the Human Digital Assistant (HDA) from H-Care. These HDAs, or avatars, which speak to customers using text-to-speech technologies from Loquendo, are sure to become a fixture on retail Web sites and in kiosks throughout shopping malls and other more high-end shopping areas.

In the kiosk application, the HDA is wired to a sensor and camera that identify new customers in the vicinity of the kiosk and entice them to come closer. Those who respond will discover the HDA displaying targeted information or current promotions and guiding them through its content. Animation technology enables the avatar’s eyes, lips, and face to move in sync with the voice. Links to back-end corporate information sources, like customer relationship management applications, allow truly personalized interactions between the targeted customer and the avatar.

Saverio Ricchiuto, Loquendo’s area sales manager for Italy, calls these digital assistants "customer care solutions that are informative, expressive, and fun to use."

While talking avatars for Web sites abound, vendors of the technology for retail applications are not as prevalent—yet. One vendor, SeeStorm, has created animated characters for IVR interactions over mobile phones. Another, Message Technologies Inc. (MTI), last year partnered with Fastrak Retail to create digital signage capable of holding actual, spoken conversations with customers through in-store interactive displays. The signage, called a Virtual Sales Associate, features an on-screen avatar that can interact directly with customers at the store. It uses natural language speech recognition from Nuance Communications and a user interface from Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories.

Signage directs shoppers to call a telephone number with their cell phones. Once they place the call, the avatar takes over, providing customers with in-store promotions, product specifications, and even suggestions for alternative and add-on products. The Virtual Sales Associate is especially effective for after-hours window shopping.

"It’s about trying to get people to come into the store," explains Darrell Knight, president of MTI. "It’s a way to stop them and pull them in if they’re just window shopping without necessarily having a person there to man a booth."

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