I’ve seen the rise of mobile and omnichannel retail from within the industry. Ten years ago, when I worked at Walmart.com, Amazon was becoming a powerhouse beyond books and Walmart was redesigning its delivery network in response to rising ecommerce sales. When I was at Apple in 2011, the company was redefining the concept of a “store experience,” both online and in person. As we kick off 2018, I see we’ve reached another pivotal moment for retail that will impact the marketing landscape: as voice-controlled AI takes off with brands and consumers, it’s shaping how we interact with technology.
Amazon and Google have sold 27 million voice devices in the U.S., according to research from the Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. A recent survey found that 29 percent of people who own devices like the Echo and Google Home say they shop via voice, and 41 percent plan to in the future. I expect these numbers will rise dramatically as predictive retail becomes a reality. Walmart and Google recently teamed up so Google Assistant can scan your purchase history and ask, “Do you want to reorder Colgate toothpaste for $2.99?” It can also suggest you buy floss at a discount; with a one-word response, you’re done.
With voice-activated shopping, brands can build loyalty while selling more. But it also comes with challenges, and the biggest, from my perspective, is discovery. Say you’re a brand that offers organic toothpaste at a premium. How will anyone find your product via voice unless they’re asking about it? Major platforms haven’t yet introduced paid voice search—and when they do, it will need to be done right. Targeting will have to be highly personalized (and possibly opt-in) in order to succeed.
So, while shopping is a natural extension of voice AI, in the near term, it will be difficult to find new brands and research products without relying entirely on recommendations from Amazon or Google. There are three areas where I see voice disrupting shopping this year:
Voice AI still feels like a novelty. In the coming year, brands can take advantage of this by making product reviews and user feedback more immediate and engaging. Voice is a much easier medium for sharing your reaction to something, as long as it’s bite-sized and happens at the right time. Imagine you order a Patagonia jacket that you love but you never get around to filling out reviews online. In your next daily briefing, your voice assistant asks you: “How would you rate your Nano Puff jacket from one to five stars? Did it fit as you expected?” It’s probably worth your time to answer one or two quick questions, especially if you’ll get better recommendations as a result.
The more people shop online, the more they return. Some retailers like Stitch Fix have even built returns into their business models. As online returns become regular chores, consumers have little tolerance for related hassles. Nearly half of the shoppers we surveyed returned an online purchase in the last year, and 95 percent of consumers who felt satisfied with the returns process said they’ll purchase with that brand again.
With voice, marketers can automate part of the returns process; for example, three days after you receive your Stitch Fix box, Google Assistant can remind you to send back any items you don’t want and ask if you’d like to extend your return date. It can ask which items you’re returning and why, and then email you a form to review and print.
Voice is a compelling but delicate interface because it’s immediate and difficult to ignore. Marketers can easily overstep by pushing out irrelevant messages or intruding on a customer at an inopportune time. I predict brands will avoid mass advertising and instead recommend the products they know their customers have already bought and rated highly—particularly if they’re replenishable. So, if you buy a box of Huggies diapers, a retailer can send you a reminder when it’s time to reorder.
Things get a bit trickier when a product isn’t identical to something you already bought. Because there are no shelves or product catalogs to browse, marketers will likely create shopping experiences that integrate voice and visual interfaces, like the Amazon Echo Show or Google Home connected with a TV via Chromecast. These brands will need to think about integrating voice into their brand experience online, on mobile, in messaging apps and in stores.
Voice technology will alter the marketing landscape. Sooner than you think, it will change how we shop in a few distinct ways, and brands will need to get ahead of these changes. Shifts in consumer behavior may feel subtle today, but they will have long-lasting effects on our expectations, buying habits and relationships with brands.