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Is Voice-Enabled Shopping Retail’s Missing Link?


This past holiday season, voice-activated shopping was among the various options consumers had available to make their purchases. Technologies such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant offered consumers the ability to make and execute fast and convenient purchase decisions. They promised to be a shopping nirvana for everyone from the most die-hard shopaholic to the casual shopper looking to avoid holiday traffic.

Retailers are right to be optimistic about the power of voice. According to a Walker Sands’ report, 50% of consumers who own a voice device have used it to make a purchase in the past year. However, though the future may be bright for voice commerce, many shoppers have so far been hesitant to put their faith (and payment info) in the hands of smart speakers. Walker Sands’ report shed some light on what shoppers are not interested in purchasing via voice.

At the top of the list are luxury goods, groceries, and furniture. These are segments that traditionally have to pass the “eye test,” meaning shoppers like to view these items before they buy them to provide peace of mind about their purchase. The high ranking of luxury goods and furniture may also be an indictment on shoppers’ trust of voice payment security. A 2018 comScore survey backs these theories up. According to the survey, 52% of respondents who own a smart speaker but haven’t made a purchase are concerned about providing payment information, and 44% of the same group haven’t made a purchase because they cannot view product deals.

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Shoppers like the ones surveyed by comScore may soon be shifting their opinions however. That’s because multi-modal devices such as Amazon’s Echo Show present products with both an auditory and screen interface, helping prospective buyers visualize what a product will look like. This will help retailers sell higher-value items via voice and erase consumer concerns about not being able to view items before going through with a purchase. To build these multi-modal experiences, retailers must understand the correct balance of visual and voice that their customers expect. They’ll also have to decide which parts of a shopping experience can be completed via voice-only and which ones require a visual element.

Consumer concerns over payment information are understandable, but also somewhat expected given that voice is a relatively new option. Many concerns will naturally dissipate as users become acclimated to voice technology, much as they did with mobile purchasing. With that said, the onus is still on retailers to provide the payment experiences shoppers are used to with mobile apps and e-commerce sites. Retailers must ensure there are no breaking points in their voice purchasing processes as any type of functional glitch or clunky user experience will give shoppers reason for pause, and possibly leave them with a lasting bad impression of voice purchasing.

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Questions about payment security and buying without first seeing a product are barriers to voice commerce to be sure. But the key to capitalizing on voice is bigger than voice apps and devices themselves. It comes down to building a strong omnichannel strategy.

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Retailers often fall into the trap of thinking in channels, but that’s not how consumers think. A great store presentation or strong digital presence alone is no longer enough to succeed. Shoppers expect stores, websites, mobile apps, and voice experiences to have a consistent look and feel. They want the same shopping experience no matter how, where, and when they interact with a retailer. To truly succeed with voice, brands need to incorporate it into their overall omnichannel strategy and make it easy for shoppers to switch between channels to continue browsing or buying.

Part of building successful omnichannel journeys is working in personalized features, recommendations, and offers. According to Accenture, 91% of consumers are more likely to shop with brands that recognize and remember them, and are able to offer relevant recommendations and offers as a result. And personalization is something shoppers are actively seeking out. In the same report, Accenture found more than 80% of consumers are willing to share data to enable a personalized experience.

Voice presents a unique opportunity for retailers to provide personalized offers and recommendations by using past purchase history to offer up items that may be useful. By using very targeted tags and recommendations, retailers can also come to the top of search results when customers are browsing for an item. If the omnichannel strategy is executed correctly, retailers will be able to offer these personalized recommendations based on the shopper’s whole purchase history — regardless of what channel was used to make a purchase.

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Perhaps the biggest challenge facing retailers lies in validating voice experiences to ensure shoppers can find their apps and open them successfully. Voicebot reported that 62% of Alexa skills have no rating, indicating a high likelihood that many skills go completely unnoticed and unused. Developing a voice plan that accounts for how different people search for products is essential. While one shopper might ask “Where can I find a peacoat for under $40?”, another might say “Tell me where to find affordable peacoats.” In order to be successful and show up in a long list of search results, retailers have to prepare answers for both these scenarios and however else a shopper could browse for items.

Even with some stops and starts along the way, voice is clearly the next wave in retail. Already, more than 47 million people just in the US have access to a smart speaker…and that number is only going to grow. The trick for retailers will be to ensure experiences are consistent, intuitive, and enjoyable for shoppers. With voice commerce expected to surge to $40 billion by 2022, according to a study by OC&C Strategy and Consulting, voice is a purchase channel retailers cannot afford to miss out on.

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