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Shopping by Voice a Hard Sell for Consumers

People are using virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa to do a lot of things, but making purchases isn’t really one of them. What will it take to make voice commerce take off?

AI-based voice communication has finally caught on, seven years after Apple’s Siri launch marked the first major step toward making it part of our daily lives. The recent introduction of Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition was the signal for me that voice technology is here to stay. Children are growing up talking to humanized devices as if it’s the most normal thing. My nieces matter-of-factly interact with Amazon’s Alexa all the time, getting “her” to play songs for their kitchen dance shows, checking math homework solutions, and asking Alexa fun questions. (“Are you a girl? Are you bold?”) When the 7-year-old learned that Alexa can shop, she jokingly said, “Alexa, buy me a TV.”

The idea of actually using Alexa to buy something is an unusual concept to her, which seems to be the case with much of the adult population, too. As of now, voice assistants are mainly used to access news, weather updates, and other information, and to play music and podcasts. But voice shopping hasn’t taken off. It is like a magic carpet with the potential to transport us instantly and conveniently to any shopping destination we can imagine, but part of the carpet is still stuck to the ground. The infrastructure of devices that support voice-assisted shopping has greatly expanded, but software components are underdeveloped.

Voice Shopping Is Full of Potential

Shopping-related voice interactions do have some traction, though. A survey by Adobe Analytics found that 22 percent of home speaker owners polled use their devices for shopping, and another study by PwC found that 10 percent of the U.S. voice-assistant users it sampled place daily orders by voice.

Voice technology can greatly benefit both businesses and consumers. It can enhance businesses’ multichannel strategies not just by enabling purchases but also by supporting other parts of the shopping process, including item searches, creation of shopping lists, customer service inquiries, delivery status updates, payments, and customer reviews.

Voice assistants align well with current consumer needs, too. They enable user-friendly, hands-free communication, speedy transactions not slowed down by human interaction or multiple clicks, and a more convenient way to truly personalize services and automate routine shopping tasks. Plus, customers can multitask while driving, cooking, exercising, or watching TV.

Large-Scale Adoption Requires Ecosystem Development

To understand what will make voice commerce take off, it’s helpful to consider research by Wharton professor Rahul Kapoor and Dartmouth professor Ron Adner about how new technologies are adopted. It suggests looking at the entire ecosystem of interdependent components that jointly create a new technology’s benefits. In AI-based voice commerce, the key elements are:

• Infrastructure of devices and platforms, such as smartphones, tablets, speakers, cars, TVs, watches, household devices, robots, and websites.

• Voice technology that is frictionless and humanized and comes with clear and robust privacy policies and security measures.

• Voice apps and content that support shoppers with any task in the shopping process.

• Personal data from user interactions to improve personalization and thus usefulness.

Voice commerce is like a magic carpet, but part of the carpet is still stuck to the ground.

According to the research, the system is only as strong as its weakest part. So if the development of these components moves forward at a different pace and scope, adoption can be slow (think mobile payments) or might never happen (perhaps delivery drones). Conversely, if one or more elements makes a major step forward, this can motivate other components to develop, boosting tech adoption. With voice shopping, the voice infrastructure has advanced faster than the other components.

How to Advance Voice Shopping

Five ecosystem developments will help the magic carpet of voice-assisted shopping take off.

• Partner with the Google Assistant. Amazon is the leader in voice commerce, which perfectly aligns with Amazon’s core business skills of tech and retailing. For other retailers to compete on voice and therefore make voice-assisted shopping more ubiquitous, they should partner with Google to make their assortments shoppable via the Google Assistant. Walmart, Target, Ulta Beauty, and some other retailers already have done this.

• Mitigate shopping chores. To entice consumers to voice shop and make it habitual, voice features should facilitate tedious shopping tasks, such as repeat ordering of grocery and household staples, car rides, and takeout meals, among other things. Voice apps can also support pre- and post-purchase interactions such as product searches, delivery status updates, balance alerts, customer service, and the recording of product reviews.

• Combine voice and screen. Since many product categories, including apparel, accessories, and color cosmetics, don’t lend themselves to shopping exclusively by voice, combining voice with a screen opens new doors. Next-generation mobile phones, which will more seamlessly connect speech- and touch-based applications, could hold great potential for voice shopping, especially since smartphones are by far the leading way that people access voice assistants. Combined voice and screen home speakers — such as Amazon’s Echo Show — can also support voice shopping. This could be an opportunity for Google.

• Ease shoppers’ concerns about security. According to the PwC 2018 Global Consumer Insights Survey, 13 percent of consumers sampled across 27 territories don’t use AI devices because they are concerned about security. A recent incident in which an Amazon Echo accidentally recorded and shared a private conversation certainly didn’t help ease these worries. Building trust has to be a top priority, by implementing the right data policies, ramping up voice systems’ security, and considering blockchain applications. Voice-assistant providers could also offer more generic voice assistants that don’t require the user to connect a phone to access personal information. This would reduce individualized shopping, but it could help persuade new users to try voice commerce, and win their trust — and voluntary data sharing — over time.

• Further humanize voice assistants. The more personified and natural voice assistants feel, the more they can positively impact voice shopping. In fact, according to research on anthropomorphism (the attribution of human traits to inanimate objects), people trust autonomous cars that are personified with a name, gender, and voice more than those that are not. Making voice assistants emotionally intelligent through advanced technology — for example, by making them mimic the user's voice or adapt to a situational context — could create even more of a psychological bond with consumers and thus encourage voice shopping.

Adopting voice commerce is an even bigger step for businesses and consumers than the transition from online to mobile shopping, because despite many big differences in those two platforms, they at least share the same modes of communication: text, images, and videos. As people search by voice, brands will need to make sure they're literally top of mind -- more challenging than coming out near the top of search results on a mobile screen. So, helping consumers remember their brand preferences will take on new importance. As was the case when mobile commerce emerged, voice communication raises important questions about how voice systems will prioritize search results and how advertising will work. Answers to these questions will influence consumer trust and ultimately affect when and how this magic carpet takes flight.

Denise Dahlhoff

Denise Dahlhoff is senior researcher for consumer research at the Conference Board. She is also a senior fellow at the Wharton School’s Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies.

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