It’s no real surprise that 2019 brought the biggest Black Friday and Cyber Monday to date. However, a few eyebrows may be raised by the purported emergence of a retail technology which, up to now, hasn’t had the success regularly predicted by experts.
This Black Friday, transaction value rose 16.5% in the UK, according to Barclaycard; Adobe claimed that Cyber Monday 2019 was the biggest in US history, raking in $9.2 billion (£7 billion). However, some of the most popular sale purchases during these events – voice assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home – are apparently coming full circle and now helping consumers to buy more products during these sales.
Prior to the sales events, Wunderman Thompson predicted that voice commerce would account for 2.5% of all goods purchased online, “rising to a 10% share by 2022”, comparing the emergence of the technology to the widespread boom in mobile ecommerce in 2016.
Hugh Fletcher, the agency’s global head of consultancy and innovation, explained: “The signs are all there: convenient, fast and easy, voice commerce will make its biggest mark on the retail market to date. Amazon will certainly be the biggest player in the space, looking to discount its own voice-enabled assistants to move further into the home and ‘own the interface’ with its customers.”
We’re yet to see statistics about just how many purchases were made using voice commerce during this year, but in 2018, just 2% of Amazon customers used Alexa’s voice shopping feature. That’s not 2.5% of all goods bought online; that’s 2% of one consumer base with a company that has pushed its voice technology incredibly hard.
If you’ve read any of the predictions regarding voice tech in the last few years, it may be that Wunderman Thompson is continuing a trend for pie-in-the-sky forecasts for the technology. Still, it does beg two simple questions: should retailers plan for a voice-powered future, and if so, what should they do?
To understand the opportunities, it’s important to first look at the current state of voice technology.
What problems do people have with voice technology?
Ever since the introduction of Siri on mobile devices in 2011, and later the creation of the smart speaker with the Echo in 2014, the excitement surrounding voice commerce hasn’t relented. Yet here we are, eight years on from its inception. In real terms, the problems that consumers had with Apple’s pioneer eight years ago continue to hamper the user experience now.
Voice tech simply doesn’t work well enough
In April, leading market research company Forrester tested the ability of the leading voice assistants from Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. After asking every single one a set of 180 questions about products and services, each one was ranked as passing or failing the challenge. As a whole, the quartet couldn’t answer two out of three questions (65%).
Forrester cited “failure to provide direct answers”, “inability to understand context or conversation”, and “bad user experience” as the three main problems facing consumers. Naturally, not getting an answer when asking comparative questions (“which company sells the softest men’s sweaters”) or even which products are best, means the research stage is hampered.
Why this affects voice commerce: Even if browsing was done on a laptop or mobile, voice tech seems like an unnecessary extra step: you might as well buy with those devices if you’ve already used them to search. Meanwhile, the poor dependability of voice recognition across assistants like Echo is enough to stop people combining bad service with their credit card details.
It’s too slow for today’s impatient world
One of the most obvious issues with voice technology is that you have to have a full conversation to get anything potentially done. For every question you ask, you have to listen to an answer.
Why this affects voice commerce: Say that we live in a perfect world and voice commerce works. You want to buy a new, different pair of trainers. You could reasonably find yourself asking questions about the sizes available, colours offered, the price of each pair, materials used (e.g. suede, leather), review rating, delivery timings and costs – and that’s before you’ve even chosen and confirmed your purchase.
In the same space of time, you could have compared much more quickly online, across a vast array of sellers. And all the while, you still don’t know what your trainers will look like until you get them – another massive issue with voice commerce.
Most products still need visual checking
This is where Wunderman Thompson’s comparison between voice and mobile ecommerce falls flat. Mobiles didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when taking people away from laptops or even tablets; they’re just a smaller, more refined version of existing technology. The biggest challenges were for retailers to make websites better for the experience, while consumers needed time to trust their devices as a means of purchasing.
Why this affects voice commerce: Voice purchasing effectively make the purchase of countless, aesthetically important items instantly problematic: clothing, home furnishings, beauty products and electronics all rely on the eyes to sell.
The reality for voice commerce: repeat/necessity orders
The future of voice assistants in retail isn’t their use as another option for a sales process that’s already fixed. It’s about fixing a different issue entirely.
Speaking with Digiday, Goodway Group’s Amanda Martin put it simply: voice assistants can be used to purchase “cheap, commoditised products that need to be replenished regularly”, such as toilet paper or kitchen towels. It’s the smart speaker’s job to “remember the customer’s purchase history and the customer will be easily able to carry out repeat orders”.
Ultimately, voice commerce could find a useful niche by putting a stop to forgetting those banal necessities. Those items you know you like a certain way, but ultimately don’t care too much about, will no longer be recorded through notes on the fridge or your phone; instead, you’ll just add it to your shopping list, or buy it outright, using your voice assistant.
To make the most of this functionality, retailers can explore options to respond to simpler demands with convenience and certainty at their heart. One of the pioneers of voice technology, Amazon, already operates a Basics range. As James Moar of market research firm Juniper told Wired, it’s “full of products that are simple enough to not need comparison, and so is most able to recommend products to be bought through voice”.
This does, naturally, have the opportunity to extend past commodities. Should you have bought a pair of size 12 Adidas Gazelle trainers in blue and white suede and you need a replacement pair, you’re no more than a couple of voice commands away from ordering them again.
Retailers can still prepare for a possible boom in voice commerce
Voice commerce is certainly happening, but not at the rate or in the ways predicted by experts in its formative years. However, there are some major takeaways for retailers who have the R&D capabilities and budgets to explore their options. After all, trailblazers will undoubtedly stand to reap major benefits if it does take off.
Optimise your website’s search, product markup and capabilities
The technology may not be able to explore the web in the ways mobiles can right now, but it may be something that emerges as major players explore ways for smart speakers to do it. Naturally, your products will need to be found if you’re going to sell them via voice.
Consider voice app opportunities
Anyone who’s used an Amazon Echo knows that it’s not exclusive to Amazon selling. The likes of JD Sports, Sainsbury’s, AO, Morrisons and even Autoglass have created apps to help them do their shopping, with varied success. Explore the possibilities here: if a boom in voice commerce comes, you’ll already be there across devices and, if you’re better than your peers also operating on the platform, you’ll get a leg up on them too.
Consider which products – if any – may be in regular demand
It’s not just supermarkets that will see regular orders of the same goods. As with AmazonBasics, there’s a real market for products required and delivered on a regular basis. Consider if there’s an opportunity to build loyalty with emerging voice commerce customers by offering FMCGs via voice.
Add voice search SEO to your site
Providing your product markup is top-notch, it stands to reason that you could bolster your position further with the addition of voice search SEO to your website (which is markedly different to traditional SEO). As Forbes’ Gabriel Shaoolian explained, “search engines such as Google are placing a higher emphasis on voice search optimisation” – meaning you get the benefits of better SEO performance overall.
Have fun with your brand’s voice presence
Don’t forget that voice commerce, and the technology behind it, is still evolving – as a result, it’s still exciting. Even if it’s not for you or your product offering, don’t exclude yourself from voice tech; just having a presence, however superfluous or even daft, will maintain or create connections with your customers across another platform.