Voice Commerce is not How We like to shop…Yet!

on August 8, 2018

This week the Information published an article citing that only 2% of Echo owners have used Alexa to make a purchase in 2018. The numbers were shared by two people who had access to an internal Amazon document and revealed that of the people who did buy something using Alexa, about 90% didn’t try it again. More people, 20%, were said to have engaged more broadly with Alexa with commands like “What are my deals?” and “Where is my stuff?” to track orders.

I do not want to duel on these numbers given the vagueness of the source, but whether they are spot on or lowballing, I doubt the percentage of consumers using Echo devices in 2018 to regularly shop was that much higher. In 2017, we, at Creative Strategies, surveyed 1500 US consumers, among whom we found 40% were Echo owners. This was more of an early adopter panel which showed more encouraging results than this week’s article. We found that 29% of Echo owners had bought something through Amazon Prime at least once using Alexa, but only 3.7% did so on a weekly basis. More encouraging results, but, even with early tech adopters a clear sign that creating a habit around voice commerce is harder than people might have initially thought. The reason as to why this is the case is to be found a little bit in the tech but mostly in how and why we shop.

Why do We shop?

Well, to get stuff, I hear you say. Yes, by and large we shop to acquire and own something. Shopping, however, is often a more complicated affair than just buying an item. Usually, we take more pleasure in the process of shopping than in the article itself. Looking through different options, reading reviews, seeing what other people buy is almost more important than actually making the purchase.

Shopping used to have a considerable diversion and social component that dragged us into stores. As traffic and parking got worse in many cities and our lives transitioned to a more digital world so did our shopping. While still having a social component now fulfilled by chats and users reviews the diversion component remained strong. If you, like me, can spend hours browsing through sites to end up not buying anything at all, you know what I am talking about when I say diversion. The pleasure of bargain hunting has been a driver for many shoppers and it has transferred nicely from the real world to the digital one. The recent amount of sales generated by Amazon’s Prime Day is a testament to that!

Voice and Utilitarian Shopping

Shopping is not all about fun though. There is also a more utilitarian aspect of shopping that mostly entails groceries and other essential items. We generally get this shopping done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This is where Voice Commerce has the lowest barrier to entry today. Repeat purchases, items that are straightforward to order, either because there are limited options or because those options are clear, like size, color, quantity and brand.

In many cases with utilitarian shopping we know precisely what we want so that our instructions to Alexa or Google Assistant are precise and to the point. The straightforward nature of these items increased our level of confidence that the digital assistant will get it right, making it more of a safe bet for us. There is a big difference between ordering washing up pods and a shirt, or a lamp or even a bedding set.

Screen Support and Better AI can help Voice Commerce

In the short term, I see the ability to marry screen and voice as a great combination to grow confidence. Being able to ask Alexa for an item and quickly view it on the screen of your Echo Show or TV before confirming the purchase is a great help. Google Assistant and Smart Displays can offer the same, making the process a little less of the gamble and certainly much less verbose than the assistant going through all the different options.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) could help a great deal too. The caveat with ML is that you need to use the assistant so it can learn and AI will need aggregated shoppers data to come up with recommendations based on demographic, shopping history, location, and so on. While this seems pretty straightforward, you just need to take a look at the recommendations you receive on Amazon.com to see that it might not be as easy as it looks. I am an avid Amazon.com shopper, and I am often amazed by how little customization is offers based on what I browse and what I bought in the past other than for items like books and movies.

Voice Shopping must be Different than Online Shopping

I do believe voice has a prominent role to play in commerce as long as it does not make the process more complex. Today there is still too much complexity to the process and considering that online shopping is not broken for many people there is really no incentive in trying.

Voice should take friction away not adding it, just like a good sales assistant should do in a store. For that to happen, however, we need to rethink shopping. Taking an online shopping experience and transitioning it to voice is bound to fail. Online shopping builds on the amount of information presented to us on the screen and digital assistants do not always have that luxury. So I think we need to think about voice commerce a bit more like in person shopping where I make an inquiry and the assistant narrows down what I might be looking for by asking questions and using context to add more info. This means that digital assistants might need the use of a screen and even a camera to get more information and that the interaction could be a mix of voice and touch.

I believe that right now there is such a pressure in making it all about voice, so we can call it a success or a failure. But we are missing the opportunity to use voice to enhance experiences consumers are already comfortable with. This could drive a more positive attitude towards voice and encourage consumers to experiment more. When it comes to voice commerce I strongly believe Amazon as well as Google should focus on the longer term opportunity of additional revenue and higher loyalty than the short term one of justifying the existence of digital assistants.