Voice-controlled shopping has got consumers yelling ‘Alexa’

The rise of voice shopping is coming up faster than you can say the word Alexa, with its worth expected to skyrocket in a couple years. So what must businesses do to get ready for this next force in retail?

Voice-controlled shopping has got consumers yelling 'Alexa'

Already, buying your next pair of Jimmy Choo’s might just be a shout away thanks to smart speakers like Amazon Echo Dot, Google Home and Apple’s HomePod having leaped onto the market in the past few years. And with it comes a great opportunity for small-business owners. “We are moving towards a more voice-centric world and retailers need to prepare,” says Higor Torchia, country manager, Vend, the e-commerce software company. But the question is what should SMEs consider before jumping on the opportunity presented by voice commerce?

To answer that, let’s start from the beginning. While voice recognition technology technically dates back to the late 1870s when Thomas Edison first unveiled the phonograph, it’s only in the last few decades that it’s taken huge strides forward, transforming it from the stuff of sci-fi movies to the next step in online shopping. Even though several huge tech titans played around with it in the 1990s, it was with the advent of virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri in 2011 and Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa in 2014 that things really took off. Today, many of these smart voice-controlled virtual assistants can be found in internet of things devices in many households and most new smartphones come complete with its own iteration of the software. Not only do these innovations enable you to control smart gadgets in your home – like lightbulbs or central heating – but it has also made the opportunities to shop by speaking to your belongings more plentiful.

However, while ordering things via connected gadgets has never been easier, it seems many people have yet to discover this function. Indeed, British voice transactions are currently worth £200m, according to a recent report from OC&C, the strategy consultants. Although, the same research expected this number to jump to £3.5bn by 2022. Indeed, Amazon’s hardware division is doing everything in its power to make it so, having unleashed a range of devices – including a lamp and a microwave – that all come complete with Alexa. “The power of voice-controlled commerce should not be underestimated,” argues Richard Willis, regional vice president at retail technology provider Aptos, the singular commerce platform. “It’s the natural next step for e-commerce as it taps into the modern consumer’s expectation of instantaneous need fulfilment. These devices will revolutionise customer relationship management as they offer personalised, engaging and convenient shopping experiences.”

But promising as voice might be, there are some concerns companies must recognise before jumping in the deep end – cybersecurity being chief amongst them. “The main potential problem is data privacy,” says Torchia. “Voice assistants can record people’s personal lives and understand them through AI language recognition.” This is no small issue as 85% of businesses believe that customers’ fears about the misuse of their data will slow the introduction of the voice technology, according to a survey conducted by Pindrop, the information security company. And given how big companies have been lambasted in the news over the past few years, there’s definitely cause for concern. “Thanks to recent Facebook data privacy scandals, this could be a bigger issue for the public than payment security,” Torchia warns. On the other hand, fears like this also apply to devices like mobile phones and laptops, gadgets we still use every single day. 

Still, these cybersecurity issues may make you hesitate before trialling voice commerce for your SME or think only big retailers could afford to ride the wave. However, Jonny Pennington, head of SEO at Visualsoft, the e-commerce digital marketing agency, argues smaller and nimbler firms have an advantage over huge high street brands. “[Voice] shopping could in fact benefit smaller, high street retailers,” he argues. “This is because these brands are not bound by the strict tone of voice guidelines which often restrict the messaging and keyword visibility of larger corporates. Local businesses can also be more easily found through general voice queries such as ‘find a shop that sells XXXX near me,’ allowing smart local brands to use voice to thrive on a regional level.” 

Key to ensuring this success are SMEs’ ability to recognise that shoppers may not know exactly what they want, except in general terms. And this could play right into small-business owner’s hands. “Because voice-led search results only provide the single most relevant answer to a customer’s query, businesses should therefore optimise their SEO strategies in order to stand out,” Pennington explains. But they have to act fast as this opportunity may slip through their fingers with 75% of chief marketing officers planning to change the SEO strategies for their brand in the future to appear in more voice searches, according to a report published by Queryclick, the research and insights company. “[If you haven’t already done this] it may be worth enlisting the expertise of external SEO and user experience design specialists, which will be an additional cost,” Pennington suggests. 

Voice controlled devices could also boost your profits thanks to the knowledge of the consumers they generate. “The data produced by these transactions is helpful for retailers as it can allow them to predict consumer behaviour and create an even easier customer experience,” explains Willis. 

For instance, retailers could create customer profiles by looking into other questions about the weather and local events. “If collected, processed and analysed, this data could offer insight into the potential customers’ habits and hobbies,” he continues. “Innovative retailers should utilise this rich data in order to offer personalised recommendations for the user and make their retail experience faster and easier.” Investing in v-commerce doesn’t have to be expensive. “The actual cost will depend on how much technical resource a business has in-house,” Pennington reveals. Listing your products on sites like Amazon where some voice devices get their products from will not be any additional cost – your products need to be listed in a certain way so voice devices can find them. “If a business has prepared ahead of time and has adapted their SEO strategies for voice queries, the work, and therefore additional investment, needed is fairly minimal,” he adds.

Voice-controlled devices may just not influence direct shopping but also help retailers in other ways. “Voice or conversational commerce allows customers to add to their shopping or wish lists while they’re thinking about it as well as completing or changing orders, be it at home, on the move or elsewhere,” argues Sal Visca, CTO at Elastic Path, the e-commerce company. “As strange as it may seem to have people walking down the street blurting out something like ‘Alexa, groceries, add milk’ or ‘order Monday night’s dinner and have it waiting for me for pick up after work,’ this voice-enabled commerce tool allows for a much more seamless and intuitive experience for the shopper.”  

Ultimately, the main reason why retailers big and small should think seriously about adopting voice controlled devices is they are undoubtedly going to make shopping smoother than ever before. “Shouting ‘Alexa, buy my mum’s favourite coffee because she’s coming round next Tuesday’ is easier than writing a note, jumping in your car and heading towards the shops, just to get a particular brand,” argues Torchia. The same thing goes for ordering cinema tickets with Google, ordering a pizza with Siri or just bulking up on toiletries. “[Voice] assistants improve the shopping experience, particularly when it comes to practical goods because shopping for [fast moving consumer goods] isn’t necessarily [fun] – it’s usually just part of the daily grind,” he continues.

Just because it feels unnatural to shop via voice assistance now, it shouldn’t hold back retailers from getting your company ready for this next force in retail.

Anne Struijcken
Anne Struijcken

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