Market Spotlight on Retail: Voice Is Revitalizing the Shopping Experience

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“Digitally connected customers expect digitally connected associates,” says Pizano. “However, having an associate focus their attention on a mobile device in search of product or fulfillment information is an awkward, and slow, experience for both the customer and associate.”

That’s where voice comes in. “To address this, voice-enabled IoT platforms for hourly associates enable efficient, heads-up, and hands-free communication between employees, and between the employee and the store network. They allow associates to respond to customer needs instantly, without breaking eye contact with the customer. With voice, associates create the helpful, convenient, and personal in-store environment that protects the store’s critical role in modern commerce.”

Employee Training

While speech technologies may be changing the in-store customer experience, they also have a role behind the scenes—starting with education. Not only can speech tech help train employees before they hit the sales floor, but it also lets them feel more confident once they’re there.

“Beyond the primary role of supporting improved communication and service on the store floor, employee training and evaluation is an area where voice technology is already having an impact on retail,” says Pizano. “Voice allows new employees to feel comfortable on the floor from day one, reducing the amount of time they spend in training programs and ensuring that they have access to essential information and peer/manager support at all times. In an industry with high turnover, the ability to deploy each new employee as an expert nearly immediately is invaluable.”

The right technology can take things a step further, letting employers dive deep into voice data. “Voice also allows retailers to analyze which associates are relied upon by their peers as experts, and which associates resolve customer problems most effectively and regularly,” says Pizano. “This helps managers and store leadership identify the right employees for promotions and helps them keep their best workers in the right place at the right time while supporting their professional growth. “

Speech in the Warehouse: Voice Picking

While we may picture helpful sales associates and cashiers when we talk about how voice can change the retail experience, there is a long supply chain that can also benefit from the technology.

“To execute on your new strategy, it is important to remember that you have to innovate both your in-store consumer experience and the technologies and processes that drive your business behind the scenes,” says Liston. “If you invest heavily in upgrading your customer experience but neglect to invest in your operational capabilities, you will have trouble meeting the needs of your new traffic and will not be able to fully measure the impact your new initiatives are having on your overall business.”

Voice picking systems, sometimes referred to as voice-directed warehousing (VDW), is “a paperless, hands-free, and eyes-free system that employs easy-to-understand voice prompts to direct warehouse operators to picking locations, and to instruct them in picking tasks,” according to 6 River Systems, which provides these kinds of systems, among others.

“The warehouse is another great example of an ideal application for voice technology. By maintaining heads-up and hands-free communication to peers and enterprise systems, employees can far more safely and quickly manage tasks like picking and routing orders to stores and personal addresses,” says Pizano. “Limiting warehouse errors has a huge impact on reducing store out-of-stocks and fulfilling home deliveries on time.”

Voice picking systems may, in fact, be more important than ever. According to Pizano, “As omnichannel retail becomes more complex, a lot of the pressure falls on warehouses to establish new efficiencies to keep up. Voice is one of the most promising technologies to do this, while also offering simple deployments with minimal onboarding time, limiting the disruption to standard operations.”

Speech Technologies and the Future of Retail

It’s apparent that there are applications for voice technologies up and down the retail food chain. (In fact, fast food restaurants like McDonald’s are putting their money where their mouths are by acquiring speech technology companies like Apprente.) We’re long past a simple headset connecting employees to one another at the Gap and have moved on to full integration with enterprise systems—or at least that’s the goal. With the right system in place, the customer experience—as well as the employee experience—can be changed forever. “No more of ‘That’s not my department’ from any associate, even on day one,” says Pizano. But first, retailers have to go all-in on voice-based technologies, which is still a work in progress.

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