This Is How the World Will Shop by 2022.

Future of voice commerce

It was a manic Monday morning and I was running late. Struggling to see clearly without my glasses, I asked, “Alexa, what time is it”? That simple question was directed at my elder sister. Imagine my surprise when I heard my Amazon Echo device respond “The time is 6:48 A M”, even as my sister burst out laughing at the look of confusion evident on my face. That’s when I realized the extent to which voice-based devices have crept into our lives. Many of us already use voice-driven commands to find information, play music, or even order food and other products online. This trend is just the beginning of a new stage of evolution in e-commerce; in many ways, it is perhaps a natural progression, because speaking is a basic human action.

On the one hand, consumers are getting used to voice-enabled interaction with lights, TVs, security alarms, mobile phones and even retailers; on the other, Amazon, Google and many others are constantly expanding the scope of voice-enabled tasks and devices. This trend will gain momentum as “IoT” technologies start to become more mainstream. Home appliances such as refrigerators, microwave ovens and washing machines will become “smart”- able to capture data and interact with users over the internet. Analysts estimate that by 2022, voice ecommerce will grow to US$40 Billion (from about US$2 Billion in 2018). And yet, in the first 8 months of 2018, only a relatively small proportion of people used Alexa devices for buying products (i.e. commerce). This is not unexpected either: as with every innovative product or service there will always be early adopters and laggards. (This applies both to consumers and companies).

The rise of voice commerce does not herald the imminent end of ecommerce powered by text (whether through web sites or mobile apps) or in-store shopping. But as “voice commerce” gains popularity, consumers will expect a lot more in terms of companies narrowing the gap with in-store experience (e.g. the ability to see/examine products, compare options etc.). There lies the key. Businesses that quickly embrace voice sooner and proactively innovate will have a significant advantage. Visionary businesses that have already started adopting voice as an additional channel to offer greater convenience to customers benefit tangibly in three ways:

  • They get access to a new channel  to engage with customers- a channel that is much less crowded and affords customers even greater levels of convenience than m-commerce. 
  • They are perceived as innovators. 
  • They feed off marketing efforts by Amazon and Google

It is already possible for you as a consumer to open your refrigerator, realize that there isn’t enough milk, and quickly reorder fresh supplies via voice a smart speaker like Alexa or Google Home. In the days to come, it is very likely that your refrigerator itself will be equipped with a voice assistant so that you can reorder milk, bread or eggs right in that context and environment using your voice. In fact, If you are not the retailer offering smart, convenient voice-enabled shopping, guess who’s likely to get the orders? (Hint: not you!). This will not just be true for retailers of grocery products; it will apply to every kind of e-commerce- coffee shops, pet food, vegan products, seeds, movie tickets, laundry, vapes and the list just goes on. Of course, for some kinds of commerce, the enabler may still be the phone or a website or simply in store shopping but voice can still be a channel to engage with current customers and prospects. It is very hard to step out of the engineering mindset and think about creative ways to engage audience through voice, but this is what differentiates you as a brand.

If your business already uses voice, you are definitely ahead of the curve and this investment is bound to pay off in the next 1-2 year window. But now’s the time for you to expand how you use voice to grow business. Let’s take a step back and recognize the fact that voice has gained a lot of traction in terms of content consumption, gaming, engagement (Q&A’s). Your consumers order using web, mobile or voice but do they still hunt for coupons in newspapers or use discount codes sent via SMS or apps? If the answer is Yes, then  thats where lies the opportunity to create voice engagement/adoption. Why not use voice-enabled games to add a whole new layer of fun, engagement and differentiation and drive your sales as a result? For example, you could ask consumers to guess the price of a certain product in your store on Alexa or Google Home and each hour, offer a discount to the five whose guesses are closest. Or maybe attract them with a flat 10% discount on their next voice-enabled order? 

As a business, you may have loyalty programs that allow you to figure out how often customers purchase certain products from your stores (or what pack sizes) or how frequently they get their suits dry cleaned etc. You can use your analytics capabilities to predict purchase patterns,  and harness Alexa’s latest capability: “routine” to grow your sales and reorders. (instead of a simple SMS with a URL to your website). Just because a consumer uses voice commerce does not mean that s/he will never visit a store- so what if your business creates voice-enabled apps to improve customer experience inside the store as well? Imagine a voice-powered app that guides shoppers to the relevant aisles based on what they need. You could just as easily guide them to new products (lower sugar, higher fibre and so on). Imagine the possibilities?

But like for every technology-enabled strategy, you’ve got to make sure that the timing is right. Make sure your business is ready to deliver on the promise of voice. If not, you could end up over-promising (and under-delivering)- and that’s definitely not good. You also need to think through about what your voice offering should cover. In turn, this has implications for how you design your offerings. This means figuring our answers to good voice design and some of the things to consider while designing a great voice experience are:

  • Focus on the user and keep in mind their context and environment. Voice shopping can get frustrating faster than web
  • Focus on linguistics: User A may say: “Alexa, reorder baby wipes” but User B may say: “Alexa, I need more baby wipes
  • Response: Ensure responses are short. Responses may seem short when designing on a piece of paper, but remember that Alexa speaks slower than humans.
  • Hierarchy: Web apps have a hierarchy GUI (Homepage > Mens > Sports > Shoes) but a part of the delight with voice shopping is that you don’t need to grow through these steps.