How Do You Solve A Problem Like Alexa?
Alexa has taken the world by storm. A staggering 66.4 million U.S. adults have welcomed smart speakers such as Amazon's Echo, Google Home and Apple's HomePod into their homes. Smart speaker adoption is expected to grow six-fold by 2022. Despite this, voice shopping adoption has been underwhelming, particularly if figures released in 2018 by The Information are to be believed. Citing two people briefed on internal Amazon figures, the website revealed that only about 2% of Alexa-enabled device owners had made a purchase with their voices. Additionally, of the people who did buy something using Alexa voice shopping, about 90% didn’t try it again. Amazon, for its part, disputed this, stating that millions of users use Alexa to shop. The issue of voice shopping came back on our radar this week when eMarketer lowered their end-of-year smart speaker purchase forecast from 23.6 million to 21.6 million people.
Alexa and her Google and Apple counterparts have undoubtedly made certain tasks a little easier and helped create a more efficient and hands-free home. Turning lights on and off, controlling appliances, setting timers, following recipes, listening to your favourite music and even exercising are just some of the many skills smart speaker users have embraced, but voice shopping has lagged behind.
It could be that consumers are reluctant to accept change. Consumers were initially slow to embrace mobile commerce. In 2012, mobile commerce sales accounted for 10% of total purchases. This jumped to 31% in 2016. Now, making a purchase on a mobile device has become as intuitive for many as making a purchase on a laptop. In both cases, the browsing experience is generally seamless, and the checkout process is hassle-free. Consumers can view products, easily compare items and receive personalised recommendations that make the customer journey a breeze. With voice shopping, the visual experience consumers are used to is absent. Smart displays are beginning to solve this issue, but with smart speakers the issue might be that it's more efficient to just use your phone or laptop. While it's not yet an intuitive medium, it does have its uses. Voice shopping is ideal for repurchasing branded favourites - 'Alexa, add Cheerios to my cart' - but it is not yet optimised to seamlessly enable consumers to purchase larger, more complicated orders.
That's not to say it's not possible. Voice assistants are more than capable of learning customer preferences, making the voice shopping process as easy as rattling off a list of products from the comfort of your own home. This is not an overnight process, however. In order to learn consumer preferences, voice assistants require data. If the voice shopping process is not intuitive, and consumers don't use it, the required data to make it more intuitive will be absent and the cycle continues.
The main issue is most likely that it's early days for voice shopping. Many consumers are still at the discovery stage, and voice is not yet intuitive. The question is, does it really matter? I'd argue that the real function of voice technology for retailers and brands is not necessarily to enable purchases but to improve brand awareness. Creating experiences, educating consumers and providing valuable content that truly works as voice-only - these are the strategies retailers and brands should be embracing in order to connect and build relationships with consumers in their own homes.
Voice-enabled recipes from the likes of from Allrecipes and SideChef are already popular, and home cooks often turn to their smart speaker for cooking tips. Savvy retailers and food brands have the expertise, reputation, technical ability and marketing budgets to provide an all-in-one experience and become the go-to skill for busy consumers. Even better, voice-enabled smart displays open up opportunities to engage visually while offering the same benefits of a hands-free smart speaker. Food is visual after all.
There's no doubt that voice shopping will take off in the future. 30 years ago it was unimaginable that groceries could be purchased from the comfort of your sofa and delivered in 2 hours, but it has become a reality. As retailers focus heavily on promoting online grocery to consumers, voice shopping is most likely on the back-burner. Brand awareness, on the other hand, is a daily priority, and for that voice technology is ideal.