4 Reasons Why Retail Isn’t Quite Ready for Voice Assistants Yet

There are too many obstacles facing consumers and brands

Perhaps voice assistants don't quite make sense in the shopping realm yet.
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Many speculate that with the increasing adoption of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, voice ordering is the next preferred channel for buying goods. One report from OC&C Strategy Consultants even claims voice shopping will reach $40 billion by 2022 in the U.S. alone.

These predictions are spurred by the escalating adoption of smart speakers and furthered by steady engagement with those devices once purchased. EMarketer forecasts the number of smart speaker users will rise from 16 million in 2016 to 76.5 million by 2020. And once a consumer has a smart speaker, they tend to actually use the voice assistant function. According to a study from NPR and Edison Research, 65 percent of those surveyed wouldn’t want to go back to a life without their smart speaker.

With the growing and engaging presence of smart speakers across U.S. homes, it’s natural to conclude that voice shopping’s inherit convenience will make it the next big thing with consumers. I do agree voice will become a viable channel for commerce, but I don’t think it will dramatically alter the industry anytime soon. There are too many obstacles facing consumers, retailers and brands alike to drive full societal adoption for now.

Here are a few reasons why the hype is ahead of the reality.

Consumers aren’t going to buy clothes or electronics on voice

Amazon and other voice commerce drivers are trying to make the case that there’s a broad opportunity for voice, but I think they’re a little zealous. There’s a very specific opportunity for voice: reordering. Voice will enable the shopping of convenience, not recreation. Why? Voice is simply not the best for browsing for more high-end items because consumers can’t easily interact with product details, images and reviews in the same way. Voice is best suited for the prompted reorder of things like consumer-packaged goods and other products consumers buy regularly without much thought. If they’re out of batteries or toilet paper, then it makes sense to voice command a reorder, but it’s unlikely they’ll turn to voice for their next evening dress.

Security still needs tuning

Retailers and brands should instead focus on the smartphone capabilities already available that can improve the shopping experience.

Voice assistants are in their relative infancy and still have security and parental control issues that need to be addressed. For one, parents must specifically set up security measures so their kids don’t use voice command orders and run up expenses. It was also recently discovered that both Alexa and Siri can be controlled via subliminal messages hidden in music, including prompts to order unwanted items. When it works perfectly, voice shopping is undeniably convenient. But when it doesn’t, the shopping cart can go awry, and the experience can be slightly creepy.

Voice is brand-biased

Unless consumers specifically state what brand they want, there’s a strong chance their order for batteries will default to Amazon Basics or a randomly-selected brand. In a test conducted last year, Bain & Company found that “in categories in which Amazon has a private brand, 17 percent of the time Alexa recommends the private-label product even though such products make up just 2 percent of volume sold.” If consumers don’t like what shows up at their doorstep then they must be very precise for their next order.

Voice is not an even playing field

Frankly, there isn’t enough competition in voice right now. Amazon’s Alexa dominates 70 percent of the U.S. smart speaker market, according to the same study from Bain & Company. That doesn’t mean there aren’t efforts to compete with Amazon. Google sales recently caught up and made waves with a program that partners with retailers to list their products on “Google Search, Google Express Shopping Service and Google Assistant on mobile phones and voice devices.” This is a first step, but retailers and brands will still face an uphill battle to fight on even ground within the voice shopping ecosystem.