Voice recognition has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until Apple introduced Siri in 2011 along with its iPhone 4s that voice assistants entered the marketplace. The release of competitive technology from Google and Microsoft in the years following solidified that voice-activated tech was here to stay. The assistants — ever-present on phones, computers, and tablets — helped give directions, send messages, and search the web without major innovation until 2015 when the Amazon Echo was released to all customers and voice shopping was born. Today, voice shopping continues to expand rapidly as a platform in the ecommerce marketplace.
In 2017, just two short years after the initial release of voice-assisted purchasing, the Walker Sands Future of Retail Study analyzed the use of voice assistants among consumers. The study concluded that nearly a quarter of consumers (24 percent) owned a voice-controlled device like Amazon Echo (16 percent) or Google Home (6 percent). Another 20 percent planned to purchase one in the next year. Additionally, one in five consumers (19 percent) have made a voice purchase through Amazon Echo or another digital home assistant, and another third (33 percent) plan to do so in the next year.
For younger consumers, voice ordering is even more frequent. 37 percent of Millennials, ages 26–35, say they “always” or “often” shop online via voice-controlled devices. Moreover, 43 percent of consumers in that group report having made a voice-controlled purchase over the past year.
Drivers of Growth
In general, the shopping experience is all about choices. Brick-and-mortar stores can find it difficult to compete with online retailers based on the ability of their virtual counterparts to offer expanded inventories, a multitude of products and brand names, and the ease of being able to buy it all without leaving the computer or couch. Voice shopping offers the same extensive inventories of products but adds another level of convenience; you can do it all without lifting a finger.
Voice-assisted purchasing is as simple as making a shopping list. Instead of writing items down as they need to be replenished, you can just tell your device. Depending on your preferred shopping style you can purchase items immediately, one-by-one, or add them to your cart to order in a group.
Most devices offer a smart ordering feature that will save your brand preferences or access your previous orders to determine what product is added to your cart. Now, instead of writing a product on your shopping list, driving to the store, locating that product, choosing a brand, and checking out, you can say, “Order paper towels,” and a few days later they will arrive at your door.
Increased Product Availability
When it comes to product availability, the Amazon Echo has an initial advantage over other voice-controlled devices. Amazon is, after all, the world’s largest online marketplace. With a significant portion of its vast online inventory available for purchase with a word, and more items added every day, it is tough to see how other providers can compete.
Google Home, lacking an existing inventory, has its own strategy to expand products available for purchase. Google partners directly with retailers to list their product catalogs, and its list of nationwide partners is actively growing. The list includes well-known stores like Costco, Kohl’s, and, as of October 4, 2017, Walmart. Smaller, regional retailers are not excluded; the full list of outlets a consumer can shop through Google Home includes over 45 stores.
Similar to any new technology, with advancement comes risk. According to the Future of Retail study, the top concern with the expansion of voice shopping is security. Both Amazon Echo and Google Home have roadblocks in place to protect customers’ personal information and peace of mind.
Voice assistants require the device to register words and sound. The devices also record and interpret conversation to carry out customer requests. Understandably, data sharing and information regarding what is “heard” and stored by the device has become a hot topic.
Rory Carroll, a writer for The Guardian, discussed these fears in an article “Goodbye privacy, hello Alexa,” calling the Amazon Echo “the home robot who hears it all.” In the article, Carroll contrasts the device’s usefulness with its ability to record and store snippets of conversation. “With dozens of daily interactions recorded in the app’s history,” he comments, “It grows to quite an archive, giving the dates and times I asked Alexa…to play John Lennon, or add garlic to the grocery list…Banal footnotes to life…but potentially lucrative intelligence for a retail behemoth dubbed as the ‘everything store.’”
Google’s device works on a similar principle. Google Home listens in seconds-long snippets for a hotword. If the hotword is not detected, the snippets are automatically deleted from memory. When the device detects the hotword, the attached LED light will turn on to indicate that a recording is occurring. The recording is then sent to Google to fulfill the customer request. Recordings can be deleted at any time from the customer’s Google account.
Amazon’s recording differs by device. Amazon offers long-range devices that work similarly to Google’s description above, using a hotword to activate recording. Amazon also provides devices that utilize a button to begin the recording. The button must be pushed before making any request. These types of devices can give peace of mind to consumers who are not comfortable with a device that is always “listening.” Amazon also allows the deletion of recorded requests through the user’s account.
Voice shopping requires customers to create an account with a password before ordering. Amazon also encourages the use of a 4-digit authentication code to prevent accidental ordering or ordering by third parties like visitors or family members. Google Home allows the use of multiple accounts and utilizes voice recognition to differentiate between users. Both devices allow users to toggle voice ordering capabilities on and off. Voice ordering can only be re-enabled using the user’s account credentials.
Looking to the Future
If voice ordering continues to build popularity in the ecommerce market, online retailers will need to adjust to growing consumer expectations and demands. Unlike apps and websites before them, it is unlikely that voice consumers will utilize a brand’s specific interface. Instead, consumers will rely on companies like Amazon and Google to bring retailers together on one device with a few magic words.