Samsung just threw the doors open to entice developers to create apps for Bixby, its digital voice assistant, just a few short weeks after announcing a smart speaker positioned to compete against Amazon’s Echo and Alexa. This is just the latest in a round of news about the power of voice, and the many powerful companies positioning to capture and amplify the voices of consumers worldwide.
It’s fun to watch the pieces moving about the chessboard, but it will be a very long time before any of these players can call checkmate. Even so, there are early patterns emerging and signs that retailers, brands and consumers need be aware of.
Because the best part about voice is that it’s being driven by consumers in these early days—humans who speak and are looking for answers. What they’re asking already varies depending on the brand or operating system they’re interacting with, and this is telling researchers a lot about consumer intent and how voice commerce will develop.
The conversation starts, as all do these days with Alexa.
There’s mounting evidence that for all the attention Amazon’s Alexa gets, precious little is being bought through her voice interface. She makes great headlines, but the truth is that while Alexa in particular, and voice in general, haven’t disrupted retail, it’s only a matter of time before that changes.
The Information recently let it slip that practically no one is buying from Amazon’s Alexa, the digital assistant embedded in a growing number of smart home products including the Echo line of Bluetooth speakers.
According to people familiar with Amazon’s internal figures, only 2% of those who own devices with Alexa have bought something via voice sometime this year. There are some 50 million Alexa-enabled devices sold through to households and just 2% are saying “buy.” And the vast majority of those who did—90%—opted not to repeat the process.
A more optimistic report from Code Computerlove found that 7% of voice-enabled device owners have used them to buy something online. OC&C Strategy Consultants estimate that of the $3.5 trillion in sales transacted in 2017 (according to the National Retail Federation), just $2 billion was done through voice assistants.
Other interactions are proving more gratifying, however. According to The Information, 20% of users have interacted with Alexa to follow up on order status, and a PwC study found that 44% have used a smart speaker to control items in their homes like lights or temperature.
It’s important to note that Amazon, while the dominant brand in the market, doesn’t have it locked down. Not by a long shot, as more devices come online backed by some big brands.
In the first half of this year, sales of Google Home smart speakers have overtaken Amazon’s Echo, according to Canalys. Similar devices from Microsoft and Apple are selling well, Samsung has its new entry into the market and Facebook appears to have filed a patent to create a version that would presumably be linked to the social media platform.
Interestingly, consumers are using and searching through each device differently.
According to research from Performics and Northwestern University’s Intent Lab, Amazon’s Alexa gets queried most about the news, Apple’s Siri is asked about the weather, Google Assistant to report traffic and Microsoft’s Cortana to give sports scores.
Consumers are asking for news and weather, not product recommendations, possibly because the results are disheartening. The voice interface often struggles to recognize requests and reportedly returns product recommendations that skew heavily toward private labels.
Consumers also have trust and privacy issues with voice assistants—42% of Intent Lab respondents decline to make purchases because they’re uneasy about sharing private information, and 23% won’t because they don’t trust the information being doled out.
Of all the devices, Amazon clearly dominates as the choice for shopping, according to the Intent Lab study. And we can expect Amazon to do everything in its power to maintain this lead. The company recently hosted a developer event to encourage and assist companies to develop functions for its smart devices.
“Amazon has a head start in the market,” Pete Erickson, CEO and founder of the event host Modev, told fellow Forbes contributor Andria Cheng. “They are very interested in making sure the developers know how to build their first Alexa skills, do more with them, or learn how to monetize.”
So while Amazon is working to build functionality, brands are also working to find ways to get in front of consumers in this new search medium and looking closely at early consumer use and intent. And while things are moving slowly for now, marketers and product manufacturers are watching closely, and building tools to get consumers to buy more.
Right now, voice is best for concrete tasks. Consumers are using it to get short specific answers (35%), directions (31%), product information (17%) and simple product/brand comparisons (12%).
Some product categories are also emerging as early leaders. The Intent Lab found household items were among those most likely to be bought via voice by 19% of shoppers, 15% are interested in ordering meals, 13% would buy groceries, and 11% would consider buying electronics and personal care/cosmetics. Apparel ranked low, at just 9%, and only 6% would spend on travel through a voice assistant.
This will take some time. Like all good technology to make a real and lasting impact on society, voice is taking root slowly. According to Amazon, voice searches via virtual assistants like Alexa now exceed 50 billion a month and by 2020 that’s expected to reach more than 200 billion monthly.
It’s early days for voice, but already we know just how powerful the impact will be on brands and retail. Shoppers might not be asking Alexa (or Siri or Cortana) to make a purchase just yet, but they will be, of that there is little doubt.
Author: Laura Heller, Director of External Communications, Performics