Hey Alexa, Buy Milk: How Connected Commerce is Changing How We Shop

In retailers' quest for the Holy Grail of eCommerce – a seamless shopping experience – one new trend in particular has taken off: voice shopping, or "conversational commerce."

Until very recently, voice shopping was a foreign concept. In 2016, commercials began to show how it was done, with celebrities like Garth Brooks ("Alexa, order a black cowboy hat") and Macauley Caulkin ("Google, add after shave to my shopping list") demonstrating this new wave in online retail.

Before those ads, the public might have scoffed at the idea of voice shopping. But in a short time, they've gotten used to the knowledge that their phones are listening, and despite initial resistance, many have jumped on board. Narvar reports that as of August 2018, 42% of smart device owners used voice shopping, up from 29% at the end of 2017. Purchases made via voice shopping are expected to skyrocket in just a few years, from $2 billion in 2019 to $40 billion by 2022. The numbers support this claim:

The most popular category in voice shopping purchases in 2018 were groceries, followed by electronics and household items, according to OC&C Strategy Consultants.

“This question of discoverability is the most important factor in this race to be first among competitors to serve customers on smart assistant platforms,” says Charles Fairchild, CTO of WillowTree Apps.

“This question of discoverability is the most important factor in this race to be first among competitors to serve customers on smart assistant platforms,” says Charles Fairchild, CTO of WillowTree Apps.

The 2018 study Voice Shopping: Consumer Sentiment & Use from Consumer Technology Association found that "a majority of those who have shopped and made a purchase in the past year [via voice shopping] are likely to do so again, with 86% reporting they were extremely or very satisfied with their experience." According to Capgemini, global leader in consulting and technology, the reasons for that satisfaction are convenience (say 52% of customers); the ability to go hands-free (48%), and the ability to automate routine shopping tasks (41%). Consumers are often seduced by convenience, and voice shopping – which allows customers to make purchases on a whim, without a single click or sign-in – may be the ultimate in convenience.

Perhaps that's why Capgemini boldly claims that "voice assistants will become a dominant mode of consumer interaction over the next three years, with shoppers who use the technology willing to spend 500% more than they currently do via this mode of interaction."

Clearly, conversational commerce is becoming a part of daily life for many people. Here are some ways grocers are jumping on the voice shopping train:

  • In late 2018, Kroger launched its voice assistant technology via Google in six of its stores (Fred Meyer, Fry's Food and Drug, QFC, King Soopers, City Market, and Ralphs), with plans to expand that list in 2019. Target and Walmart had already partnered with Google to do the same.

  • In 2017, online grocer Peapod announced its "Ask Peapod" feature, which allows customers to add items to their shopping cart via any Alexa-enabled device.

  • Whole Foods partnered with Conversable to create a chatbot, with whom shoppers can talk through their Facebook messenger and get recipe ideas based on a single item.

  • Boxed, an online club store based in New York, took a similar tactic to Whole Foods: its chatbot Bulky, also available through Facebook messenger, helps shoppers "track orders, build baskets and find new products"  (Progressive Grocer)

As voice shopping permeates the culture of retail, grocers have a choice of whether and how to get in on this trend. Offering the feature would require either partnering with an industry giant like Google or Amazon, or developing voice technology independently. The latter, understandably, is not a viable option for many small-format stores. Fortunately, some experts expect that the technology will become increasingly available to smaller retailers.

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