Market Spotlight on Retail: Voice Is Revitalizing the Shopping Experience

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Retail may be the industry most altered by advancements in speech technology. From online shoppers to warehouse employees, from retail associates to marketers, nearly every facet of the retail industry is being transformed by the voice revolution. You don’t have to take our word for it, though. Retail experts agree voice is changing the face of retail.

“In-store retail environments present an ideal opportunity to leverage any technology or process that improves customer service and the shopping experience. ... But this isn’t limited to just consumer applications,” says Amber Pizano, head of marketing at Theatro, which offers to “connect your entire workforce, especially those hourly workers who have been left behind by the mobile revolution.”

In fact, it may just be the use of voice and other technologies that are keeping retail environments relevant. The re-imagining of physical retail involves several converging trends, and first among them is the reconceiving of stores as customer acquisition channels, says John Liston, director of growth at Springboard Retail, a provider of point-of-sale and retail management software. “This is a time of great change and opportunity in retail. Those retailers who shift with the times have the best chance of not only surviving but thriving tomorrow. This requires a complete rethink of what it is to have physical retail space.”

Shopping by Voice

Earlier this year, we reported that voice shopping will reach $40 billion by 2022, according to research from OC&C Strategy Consultants. Meanwhile, according to research from OnBuy, 27.3% of American consumers praised the hands-free nature of voice shopping, 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.

Amazon’s Alexa may be leading the way when it comes to voice shopping, but traditional retailers are refusing to be left in the lurch. Walmart partnered with Google to create a grocery shopping app. It rolled out Walmart Voice Order in April 2019, but that wasn’t the company’s first foray into voice shopping. In 2017 it kicked off a partnership with Google that allowed users to reorder favorite items through Google Express.

Despite what seems like bullishness on the part of retailers, some research suggests consumers aren’t always as gung-ho about shopping by voice. According to OnBuy’s analysis of data from Voicebot.ai, over 31% of people say they “do not yet feel entirely comfortable shopping by voice.” According to a press release, “This notion is reflected by 21.15% of Americans not warming to voice shopping because there is no screen and 16.74% believing they can type faster to get what is wanted.”

Some brands may also have something to worry about when it comes to the dominance of voice shopping.

According to Harvard Business Review’s David R. Mayer and Nick Harrison, “If digital assistants with trustworthy recommendations become a significant source of sales—and we think they will—they could chip away at all but the strongest product brands. Competition will become even more brutal as consumers switch between only one or two verbally suggested options offered by digital assistants—one being their own private label or another low-cost product. Companies that have negotiated with retailers for shelf space up to now will have to find ways to convince the digital assistants to put their products at the top of verbal searches.”

Imagine you’re the maker of Puffs facial tissue, and 50% of your customers suddenly switch to voice-ordering their household staples (the most popular category for voice shoppers). They might say “Buy Kleenex,” using a brand name as a stand-in for an entire group of products. But the voice assistant would likely understand this statement as a request to buy a specific brand. The implications could be devastating for Puffs.

Add to that the worries that virtual assistants like Alexa may prioritize Amazon Basics’ versions of just about anything on offer and brands will need to find new ways to stand out in the voice-based marketplace.

Voice Transforms Brick-and-Mortar

As e-commerce provides competition for brick-and-mortar stores, it’s more important than ever for retailers to make their in-store experience shine. Part of that means having well-trained associates who can answer customers’ questions—or can find the answers quickly. That means being connected to the company’s back end.

The unique combination of speech technology, AI, and wearable technology just might be the solution retailers need.

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