Voice shopping tipped to be next big thing in retail

New consumer channel via smart speakers and smartphone apps gaining traction in US

WASHINGTON • Hey, Google, order a pizza! Alexa, I need vitamins!

Voice shopping via smart speakers and smartphone apps is gaining traction among consumers, opening up a new "conversational commerce" channel and potentially disrupting the retail sector.

Devices such as Amazon's Alexa-powered speakers and Google Home, which use artificial intelligence (AI) to respond to voice commands, are offering new choices to those looking for more convenient ways to buy goods and services.

Voice shopping is expected to jump to US$40 billion (S$54 billion) annually in 2022 in the United States, from US$2 billion today.

"People like the convenience and natural interaction of using voice," said Ms Victoria Petrock of the research firm eMarketer. "Computing in general is moving towards voice interface now that the technology is more affordable, and people are responding well because they don't have to type."

A recent eMarketer survey found 36 per cent of US consumers liked the idea of using a home-based assistant like Amazon Echo to make a purchase.

The use of smart speakers has also expanded the possibilities through smartphone chatbots or text-based systems, including those from Facebook and Apple.

"This is growing exponentially," said Mr Mark Taylor, executive vice-president at consultancy Capgemini. "We're getting very used to asking Alexa or Google to do something on our behalf, which makes it simple to switch and say, 'Hey Alexa, buy me dog food.'"

Capgemini research shows many consumers are satisfied with voice interactions, which are growing for search and information as well as purchases. It said this is likely to become a "dominant" mode of consumer action within a few years.

The most commonly shopped categories through voice are groceries, entertainment, electronics and clothing, according to OC&C.

They tend to be "low consideration goods" such as items consumers have purchased before.

But as people grow comfortable with voice assistants, Mr Taylor sees potential for growth in "higher consideration" items, such as insurance or financial services.

"People like to talk to human beings because humans give insight and guidance, and AI can do the same thing," he said.

The "conversational interface" is a tremendous advantage in some situations, said Mr Manlio Carrelli, executive vice-president at LivePerson, which provides technology for firms in online platforms. It could be important not only for sales, but also customer service - reducing the need for dreaded call centres and saving millions for businesses.

Walmart is one of dozens of retailers offering voice-based shopping through Google Express, along with sellers of flowers, hardware, groceries and other goods.

Domino's Pizza has embraced this technology, allowing orders through Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Facebook Messenger and other platforms.

In France, Google Home devices can be used to shop at the giant retailer group Carrefour. And retailers in China have been partnering with tech firms for similar services.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'Voice shopping tipped to be next big thing in retail'. Print Edition | Subscribe