May 16, 2022, Innovations

Voice shopping – is it really a thing?

John Oxley Business Consultant
voice shopping, shopping, siri, alexa, nest, homepod,
Amazon revolutionised online shopping way back in 1995, and of course it is still the market leader. Shopping options have vastly improved, but the most radical change has been the introduction of Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, as a new way to shop.

Not content with controlling lights, playing music and waking you up, Alexa, as well as offerings from Google (Nest) and Apple (Homepod), all have the ability to order stuff online. At your command of course.

Over the past two years of isolation and discomfort over being in the great outdoors, online shopping has gone crazy, and the thought of sitting at home ordering products using a smart speaker, or home digital assistant, has become rather pleasant for some. For example, Samsung’s 6th generation Family Hub, a smart fridge, has Alexa built in, so it’s easy to order groceries, as well as all the other services Alexa offers.

The majority of voice shopping is mainly being achieved on mobile phones, and I think it will be a long time before smartphones lose their superiority. For one thing, most consumers would prefer to see an image of a product, and a comparison, before they buy it, and for the moment, most normal smart speakers don’t have that capability.

In this article, I’m first going to look at the progression of digital assistants, from Bell Labs’ Audrey in 1952 to present day DAs with artificial intelligence and natural language processing. Then I’ll follow up with potential growth areas and how voice shopping may, or may not, be the ‘thing’.

The evolution of digital assistants

In 1952, the automatic digit recognition machine (Audrey) was unveiled by Bell Labs. As stated in the name, it could recognise single digits spoken by designated talkers, so technically could have been used for voice dialling. It was at least 6 feet tall with bundles of cables and practically useless. But it was a start in the right direction. 

Several different products came out later, including IBM’s shoebox voice activated calculator (‘61), and then ELIZA happened, a text-based chatbot, using scripted responses to simulate conversation. It was the first natural language processor.

Slip into the 90’s and Dragon’s ‘Naturally Speaking’ hit the market, and was totally embraced by a friend of mine who suffered from dyslexia. After ‘training’ the program for several days, he could simply speak into the microphone and have his words changed to text. I believe it is still available today, used particularly by medical staff to document their notes.

In 2011, Apple introduced Siri on their Iphone 4S. This was the first time that people could communicate with their phones. It was initially set up to make calls, send messages, look up the weather and set alarms. It wasn’t much but it was honest work.

Eleven years later on, and with 83% of the world’s population owning a smartphone, it seems natural to use your voice to get directions, seek answers, and shop. Consumers can order food, make reservations, get accurate information on levels of traffic, and get quality recommendations based on previous usage and behaviour. The level of AI and natural language processing in smart devices is astonishing, and constantly improving. 

Mobile, tablet, smart speaker?

6 billion mobiles, 168 million tablets, how many smart speakers? Hmm, I’ll have to ask my assistant. Probably over 250 million, potentially over 600 million by 2024.

Most of the voice shopping recorded up to now has been done using mobile devices, and the ability to shop on the go is a big attraction. It would appear that 20% of US consumers have tried voice shopping with their smartphones, and some enterprising stores are experimenting with ways to advertise their products, discounts and other special services while a customer is actually in the store, combining physical and digital presence. This, in a way, helps to reduce ‘showrooming’, where a customer would walk into a physical store to see and try out a product, then leave and find the same product online for a cheaper price.

Although tablets are reasonably popular, they tend to be left at home. I can’t remember ever seeing someone with a tablet and using it on the street. Additionally, if the tablet is wifi only, there are risks attached to using external hotspots, especially during transactions! Voice shopping on a tablet? Only at home, thank you. And unless you have the latest model, a smartphone will be faster anyway.

Smart speakers enjoyed a meteoric rise from their introduction in 2014 to 2018 with 47 million being sold in the US alone, then it kind of petered off, with sales of only 4 million last year. The leading manufacturers are predicting a much slower growth in the US. On the other hand, the UK has witnessed blooming sales of smart speakers, and in early 2021 there were 20 million of them in a country with a population of 52 million, with 1 in 5 devices being video chat capable. An important influence on the purchasing of smart devices is the lack of concern over data issues and integrity. UK owners simply don’t worry as much about security as their American counterparts do.

Is it really a thing?

Similar to the original take up on using the internet, where some were naysayers, some were cautious and some were thrilled, voice shopping is in a wait-and-see state for adoption. Many are worried about the security of personal data, and there is a large percentage of ‘will never use it’ thinking. But as people experiment with voice commands on their smartphones, it seems logical to assume that they will eventually turn to voice shopping as a hands-free option, avoiding typos, being able to multitask, and saving time. 

Most purchases using voice are valued at less than $100, giving users satisfaction without much risk. It is not yet viewed as a channel for more expensive products, although that will probably change in time, as users become confident with the platform. As with most new technology, this type of shopping, as long as businesses adapt to using it, will almost certainly grow. Furthermore, the rapid advances in AI, NLP and NLU will make adoption of this technology even more appealing to consumers looking for a quick fix alternative to regular shopping.

Finally, voice shopping may be changing a well established stereotype about gender and shopping. Men, it seems, are the champions by almost a third, 63% to 37%. I believe that shopping, to most men, is a chore, but voice shopping might be viewed as a kind of sport.