Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, has been a feature of the iPhone since the iPhone 4S released in 2011. Windows released Cortana their voice assistant for Android, Xbox, and Windows 10, in April 2014.
Now, there’s a new generation of voice assistants created for the home. The Amazon Echo debuted in September 2014 and Google Home in November 2016. These devices can be used for answering questions, weather reports, home controls, playing music and (most important for ecommerce merchants) shopping.
Amazon v. Google
For now, the Amazon Echo is the leader. It has been called the “accidental winner” of the voice assistants. The obvious reason why the Echo is in the lead is that it has been on the market for over two years. Which is a large head start on Google Home which released just five months ago. Echo users can access over 10,000 “skills” compared to 80 or so “actions” that Home can do. On the shopping side, Amazon is naturally associated with retail over Google. Which hasn’t seemed to discourage Google because they have not been marketing Home as a shopping tool.
Google has an asset that Amazon just can’t compete with. It has a huge search inventory that makes Home much better at answering questions, which is a main function of a voice assistant. Everyday people without a voice assistant use “Google it” a verb for finding answers. Users can also connect Google Calendar, Google Keep, and Google Maps to help Home learn more and truly become an assistant.
A feature of Google Home that has been bragged about is the ability to respond conversationally in a way that makes it feel like a more natural human interaction. For example, if you ask Google Home “Who plays Luke Skywalker?” It will give you the answer then you can follow up with a question like “What other movies is he in?” and Home will infer that you are still referring to the actor Mark Hamill and still provide the answer.
How Customers are Reacting
Shopping is actually not even one of the top five uses for these devices. A study shows the main functions Echo users engage in are playing a song, controlling smart lights, setting timers, connection to a paid music service, and reading the news.
There are a couple reasons why the shopping function is not being put to use. The first deterrent is that users have to be members of Amazon Prime or Google Express to make purchases through the devices. Even if they have a membership it can be limiting to what products can be bought through Prime or Express.
The idea of talking to an inanimate object to do your shopping just hasn’t caught on yet. People are less tolerant to voice technology because it is the way that humans naturally prefer to communicate with each other. We are accustomed to communication through talking to be fairly easy, so when we are not understood right away it can become frustrating. Also, when interacting with a “human” voice people can feel pressure or get uncomfortable if the interaction isn’t relaxed or natural enough (see uncanny valley).
There are a few glitches when the devices have a hard time understanding or interpreting what is being said. In January, a story of a six-year-old girl accidentally ordering a $170 dollhouse and four pounds of cookies using Amazon’s Echo went viral. The girl said that she has just been talking to the Echo about dolls and cookies, not trying to order them. When it comes to sending money to merchants, customers what to feel secure about purchase. They don’t want to be misheard and sent the wrong product. With advancing technology and users becoming comfortable with the devices this concern should eventually fade away.
Is This The Future of Shopping?
Once people get more adjusted to purchasing items through voice, it is a very simple process to actually make the purchase. By just speaking a few sentences you can buy an item. New features will continue to be added to make shopping more convenient. Within the year Google plans to add a feature that searches local stores to let the user know which stores carry an item and if it is in stock.
Merchants need to consider a few things before expecting or wanting their products to be purchased through voice assistants. First, for the customer to even be able to find your product it must be available on Amazon Prime or Google Express. Secondly, will the consumer want to purchase your product by voice? When making a purchase through a voice assistant they can not touch or even see a picture of a product. Taking away the vital ability to see the product consumers will most likely shop for items they are familiar with and have already purchased.
There is also the merchant concern of return rates going up if the customer can neither touch or see the item. Even when an item is purchased online the return rate is at 30% compared to only 8.8% at brick-and-mortar stores. You can image the return rate of purchases made without even seeing a picture.
Right now, customers are in the middle of a learning curve when it comes to purchasing items through voice assistants. As these devices become more popular and new features, like the Home search of local store’s inventories, continue to improve, users may turn to voice assistant for their shopping needs. Merchants should assess their products to see if this new platform could be an opportunity to expand their reach and sales.