The Rise of Voice-Activated Shopping

“Alexa, order me a disco ball.”

Not too long ago, standing in your living room and requesting a purchase from the ether would gain you nothing more than a funny look. But now, voice-activated retail experiences are more than a distant possibility—they’re becoming increasingly commonplace, which means retailers need to be ready for it.

Currently, 29% of consumers use a voice-controlled device for online shopping, and an additional 41% plan to use one to help them shop in the future. All in all, that’s 70% of American shoppers who can at least see themselves purchasing through voice. And those numbers will only continue to grow.

Amazon, Google, and Apple are still duking it out to see who will ultimately be crowned category king for voice-activated personal assistants. All three companies are currently working to make their own brand of digital assistants a more integrated part of everyday life, and the strategy is working. Amazon customers, for example, spend more money on Amazon after they buy an Echo. Customers are getting more and more comfortable doing their shopping with voice-activated devices, and retailers that plan for this behavioral evolution now will be better positioned when the technology becomes firmly entrenched in the retail experience.

Currently, 29% of consumers use a voice-controlled device for online shopping, and an additional 41% plan to use one to help them shop in the future.

Below, we discuss a couple of things that retailers should be thinking about when it comes to voice-activated retail:

It’s ushering in a new era of simple shopping.

Shopping via a voice-activated device is appealing because it’s quick, easy, and convenient. It’s a natural enabler of predictive retail. Alexa can remind you it’s time to buy more milk, or Google Assistant can suggest you buy dental floss to go with your toothpaste—and you won’t have have to do anything except say “yes” to make the purchase.

Walmart and Google recently teamed up to allow Google Home users to order products directly from Walmart using Google Express, unlocking a greater inventory than any other retailer to date. Costco, Target, Ulta, Home Depot, and Kohl’s already have direct partnerships with Google Home, but the partnership with Walmart marks a new level of technology-enabled shopping. Users can link their Walmart accounts directly to Google Express to make shopping with Google more personalized. Until now, if you wanted to buy toothpaste, Google Home would make some suggestions for you, but they would mostly be guesses. Now, Google Home will be able to scan your Walmart purchase history and say, “I know you bought Colgate last month at Walmart for $2.99. Do you want that?”

As predictive technology improves, these sorts of recommendations will only get more sophisticated. Retailers are already using AI to find the exact moment when a shopper needs something—sometimes even before they realize they need it. Voice technologies will likely take that a step further to make shopping increasingly frictionless.

Traditionally, predictive shopping has been about offering you more of something you’ve already demonstrated that you want, such as Colgate toothpaste. The next level of AI retail is understanding on a personal level why buyers are drawn to new products, learning what motivates them to complete a purchase, and personalizing that information to give more relevant recommendations to each individual customer. Alexa can already suggest sending your mom flowers for Mother’s Day. It’s only a matter of time before it can do much more.

It’s an innovative way to delight customers.

Voice-activated technology doesn’t only offer a new way to make purchases—it also offers a whole new way for companies to charm their customers, and companies are already clamoring to take advantage of it. Whirlpool owners can not only control their new appliances with Alexa-enabled devices, they can also query Alexa with product questions and cooking advice. Johnnie Walker drinkers can ask Alexa for whiskey recipes and advice on what blend to purchase based on their taste preferences and budget. And customers get cooking ideas and meal inspiration from Campbell’s Soup on Alexa. The companies that are investing in voice-technology are encouraging more engagement and building brand loyalty, and other retailers would do well to follow suit.

Voice technology will also mean innovations in customer support. It’s ideal for busy customers who don’t have the time or patience to contact companies through more traditional methods. Customers increasingly desire a mix of communication channels from their retailers; 38% of customers want to be contacted via multiple channels. And while bots won’t replace talking to a person anytime soon, they can be used strategically with voice technology to deliver order updates and answer simple questions. Great customer support is essential to a company’s success, and retailers should be ready to add voice technology to their roster of customer support channels.

Voice-activated retail may be nascent, but it’s a rapidly growing part of the consumer experience. We predict this holiday season to be the tipping point for adoption of voice-activated speakers, with both Amazon and Google offering a $50 giftable option. By making it easy to purchase perishable items and forming partnerships with the country’s most popular retailers, some of the biggest tech companies out there are hard at work getting customers more comfortable with shopping via a voice-activated device. And from our vantage point, this clever master plan to turn voice-activated shopping into something customers won’t believe they ever lived without definitely seems to be working.

While bots won’t replace talking to a person anytime soon, they can be used strategically with voice technology to deliver order updates and answer simple questions.

To learn more about the evolution of customer communication channels, be sure to check out our consumer report, Bots, Text and Voice: What Cuts Through the Clutter.

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