Voice Commerce: Help or Hype?

It’s Wednesday night and you’re watching Stranger Things on Netflix after a long 12-hour day at the office. Eleven just stole a few boxes of Eggos from a liquor store and suddenly, you have a craving for waffles. A quick inspection of the freezer shows you have no waffles. You turn to your voice-activated device and say,

“Hey Google, can you place an order for a box of Eggos?”

Google: “Ok, here’s something from Smart and Final on Google Express. I’ve got a Chocolatey Chip Banana waffle, 10.5-ounce box for $2.50. Would you like me to add it to your cart?”

And just like that, you ordered Eggos!

Voice-activated devices are taking over the world…sort of

Voice might not be taking over the world entirely, but it is taking over households. Voice-activated devices, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home have become an essential piece of furniture in many homes. Aside from staying on top of your to-do list, voice-activated devices allow you to control the electronics in your home (TV, lights, locks, etc), act as a speaker to play music and even place orders for groceries.

One in six Americans owns a voice-activated device in their home, with Amazon Alexa leading the way, according to research.

Voice assistants are pushing to dominate the retail market. Interestingly, a survey by CapGemini (5,000 consumers in the U.S., France, and Germany) revealed that “40 percent of consumers plan to use voice assistants as a substitute for apps or mobile sites within the next three years.”

“Last year, voice commerce accounted for $2 billion in sales in the U.S. alone, and OC&C Strategy Consultants estimates that number will grow to $40 billion in the U.S. by 2022,” according to Forbes.

In addition, 35% of households have purchased retail items and more than 62% that own a smart speaker has used it to purchase groceries.

Voice commerce isn’t just transactional based; they’re used to track orders, check order history, reordering, and improve the overall customer experience. Voice provides the chance to do a wide range of new experiences, but with any new technology trend, is it even worth investing in?

Leveraging voice commerce for your business

Voice commerce can be defined in two different ways: executing transactions via voice and more broadly, using voice interfaces to support the customer’s shopping journey.

Executing transactions via voice is the most basic way of using voice commerce. As for Amazon Alexa, brands are still competing against their top-selling products. If a customer asks, “Hey Alexa, I need paper towels,” Alexa won’t mention your products. This is an opportunity to double down on differentiating your brand, continue to build the relationship and loyalty with your customers, and simply letting your customers know that your products are available for purchase via voice.

However, voice provides new and different opportunities to drive and support a customer’s shopping experience and sell your products. Like any channel, brands must be available to their customers at the right moment and support a specific experience. From product discovery to recommendations and conversational commerce, these opportunities to support the customer journey can happen anywhere in the store, in your car, or at home.

Let’s say you’re in a retail fitting room. The voice capability is connected to a store associate device, sending the signal of your request to the store associate.

“Hey Gap [for example], bring me dark washed denim jeans in a size 6.”

Meanwhile, outside of the store, voice is well suited for basic replenishment at home or in the office.

“Alexa, order more toilet paper.”

Voice is an opportunity to provide valuable personalization to the customer by getting information that a customer would normally retrieve as a result of an online search query. For example, a voice interface could ask you what you’re looking for today and the end user could respond with “I’m looking for a men’s lightweight blue sweater and girl’s pajamas” or “I’ve got a really important meeting and need to find dress pants and a shirt to go with it.” In these types of use cases, NLP and AI can be used to support conversational commerce.

Voice provides yet another opportunity to elevate the brand even further by adding a layer of personalized recommendations.

“Alexa, I need some new jeans. What do you recommend?”

“As a customer, I’d want Alexa to give me a range of product selections of jeans that I might be interested in based on my order history, send me the PDP directly to my phone by text or email, or app notification”, says Dave Barrowman, VP and Head of Innovation at Skava.

Voice commerce brings the brand to life

Voice assistant shopping is still in its nascent stages, but it won’t be long before we see more brands enabling voice shopping capabilities into their existing commerce strategies. Brands have already partnered with Amazon to make its products available via Amazon Alexa, including Best Buy, B+H Photo, 1-800-Flowers, to name a few.

“If I were at a retailer today,” says Barrowman, “I’d advocate at least putting the FAQ, store hours, and some basic W.I.S.M.O (where is my order) functionality upon Alexa and Google Home, if only to get the experience and have a platform for experimentation.”  

Barrowman also suggests that retailers can express their personality via voice. For example, an athletic apparel brand can create an experience for voice that allows customers to ask for exercise routines or well-being inspiration. The response could be an empowering quote, health facts or advice on fitness.

Estee Lauder began offering beauty tips in 2017 to Google Home smart speaker devices. The Estee Lauder Nighttime Expert is one of the first chat app experiences that beauty brands are getting on board.

“Adding voice experiences will unlock the next level of personalization and help us reach a new generation of consumers,” said Tricia Nichols, Estee Lauder’s vice president of global consumer engagement, in a statement. “Through our collaboration with Google, we are expanding our omnichannel efforts to go beyond store and o­­­­nline to in-home.”

A brand’s personality is engaging if it sounds like a human and must stand out. Sixty-two percent of consumers expect a human-like voice and human-like intellect according to the report Conversation Commerce: Why Consumers Are Embracing Voice Assistants in Their Lives. How a customer interacts with your brand and how they feel during the interaction are key to a customer’s shopping journey. While an Alexa or Google might sound robotic at some degree, but the way they speak can sound like a human. Learn more about conversational commerce and chatbots in a previous blog post.

Build a business case before you start experimenting

With any new technology or customer experience trend, brands must think about how it can solve a problem that your customers are currently experiencing and how it will be used to align with your brand experience. Customers expect a consistent experience across all channels. The idea is to experiment at the most basic level. If you’re new to voice commerce, start by focusing on a single voice feature, such as adding store hours or basic FAQ’s. Experiment with these voice capabilities first before adding other layers of more complex experiences, such as order fulfillment or personalized recommendations.

Experimentation can’t happen without the right architecture. Microservices allows you to actually explore emerging touchpoints, including voice commerce, without breaking your entire system. New touchpoints don’t need to be hardwired to your monolith, they can be integrated and experimented via APIs without modifying back-end code. Experimental projects can be delivered faster and without risk to the entire system (and rolled back in the same way).

In this scenario, your customer can reorder products based on their order history. When they order a product, it will send a text message to their device that the order was placed. Then, that particular order information is sent to the order management system (OMS). The customer can ask voice for the order status by saying “Alexa, check order status” without scrolling through their text messages to look up the order number for any future orders.

Back to the bigger question. Is voice commerce worth it? First, you must evaluate your business goals, business requirements, and the customer pain points you want to solve with voice. Then, you must continue to build the relationship and loyalty with your customers. As a brand outside of the Amazon scope – and a direct competition, your customers must trust you enough that when they ask for paper towels, they will ask Alexa by your brand name. So, the next time you’re watching your favorite Netflix series, think about how your voice activated device will be there to fulfill your food craving and even your customers’ needs.