Many innovations have transformed the retail customer experience over the years: the internet, mobile phones, social media, and so on. Voice assistants are the latest innovation to alter how consumers interact with retailers. With the launch of the Amazon Echo platform in 2015, voice-assisted shopping took the next step into the connected home. Amazon has captured a substantial portion of the market for in-home voice assistants with Echo, but it would be a mistake to assume that Amazon is the only major player in the market.
Google and Apple both released home assistants in 2017 – the Google Home and Apple HomePod – and in August, TechCrunch reported on half a dozen new entrants to the voice-assisted shopping market at the IFA trade show in Berlin. To compete with Amazon, Google has inked partnerships with big-box retailers like Walmart and Target to offer their catalogs through Google Home. And the entrance of Apple into the voice-assistant space makes it clear the category is here to stay.
What’s more important to understand though is that voice assistants, while transformative, are little more than another retail customer engagement channel. Purchasing an item sight-unseen with voice commands is a different kind of experience, but that doesn’t change the fundamental nature of voice-assisted shopping as one more avenue for customers to interact with brands.
Consumers have rapidly adopted voice commands in their everyday lives. Voice search now accounts for 20 percent of all queries on Google’s search engine, and total sales of the Amazon Echo doubled between its 2015 launch and the end of 2016 from 2.4 million units to 5.2 million units. Amazon’s two main technology competitors – Google and Apple – have invested in the space, and continue to do so. Because of this, retailers need to address the changes voice-assisted shopping has wrought in the customer experience.
At the same time, brands need to understand that voice needs to be integrated into a larger omnichannel customer engagement strategy instead of focused on separately. After all, sales through voice assistants still generate transactional and behavioral data that brands can use to optimize their marketing. Voice assistants are just one more digital channel for brands to interact with consumers. Voice assistants might be a different type of channel because the shopping experience lacks a visual element, but that is really the only core difference from other digital engagement touchpoints.
The more interesting component about voice assistants is their ability to work with other smart devices in the home. According to Accenture, 69 percent of consumers will own an in-home Internet of Things-enabled device by 2019. Because more consumers will own more IoT-enabled devices, having a voice assistant that can act as a centralized hub presents new opportunities for retailers to ease friction in their consumers’ lives. Despite this projected growth in marketshare, it’s important to understand that voice-assisted shopping is one of many channels of engagement, and shouldn’t be given outsized importance.
Brands need to blend the data from voice assistants with data from their other engagement point solutions to fully understand the customer journey. The way to do this is through adopting a flexible, adaptable solution like a customer engagement hub (CEH). With a customer engagement hub, retailers can:
As the customer experience becomes more fragmented and more omnichannel over time, the ability to understand how consumers react and where they prefer to receive messages is vitally important. There is a substantial benefit for retailers who can engage consumers effectively through their preferred channel: Harvard Business Review recently found that customers who use four or more retail channels spend nine percent more in the store, on average, compared to those who used just one channel. Voice assistants need to be included in any retailer’s reckoning – especially as they gain prominence.
Voice assistants may be the “next big thing” in the consumer experience, but it is important to understand their place in the larger retail ecosystem. A shopper who buys a product through their Amazon Echo will likely still buy through other channels as well; voice assistants serve as just one more avenue for customer interactions. The retailers that understand that, and integrate data flows from voice assistants into their omnichannel strategy are the ones who will survive and thrive in the long term.
Author’s Note: RedPoint Global is at the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show” from January 14 to January 16, so feel free to email me to set up an appointment to talk more about the opportunities still alive in digital retail.