Voice assistants are a new frontier in retail. With the majority of consumers (77%) now using smartphones, the market is ripe for disruption, according to Jake Stanley, co-founder of Little Rock-based Vocool Technologies.
Vocool, founded in January 2018, is focused on voice technologies and their impact on the workplace. Part of the company’s work in the retail supplier space involves consulting and integrating mounds of retail data, then applying voice assistants as a business tool to turn data spreadsheets and dashboards into informative podcasts. That allows busy professionals to listen to the analysis on their way to work, or perhaps even in the shower.
Stanley said voice-assisted commerce holds potential for suppliers looking to get a leg up on the competition because it can enhance the efficiency of analyzing data, which gives professionals more time to troubleshoot and strategize ways to grow sales.
“A sales manager in the supplier community can spend a lot of time focusing on inventory, sales by store and other data shared with the retailer,” Stanley said. “By using a voice assistant solution the professional can eliminate the six to eight mouse clicks necessary from the dashboard data center and get the pertinent analysis in a short conversational podcast from a smart device.”
Stanley said the dashboard configurations for retail supplier data was a big improvement from a few years ago when users were left to pull the spreadsheets and do the raw analysis themselves. As technology has evolved, he said voice is the next wave of innovation to allow professionals to skip steps and get on to more important issues like growing sales.
Stanley said Vocool is working with some of the technology firms who serve the Walmart supplier community to add the voice tools to services sold to suppliers. He expects voice assistant applications in business to become more mainstream in the next year or two.
Looking specifically at how voice assistants can impact retailers, Stanley said one has to think beyond the smart speakers being sold today. He said smart speaker adoption rates are growing, but more importantly car manufacturers, home builders and appliance makers are embedding smart speakers in the products they make.
“In a few years, smart speakers will be ubiquitous,” Stanley said. “I can foresee retailers having smart shelves or some form of speaker integrated with the shelves that can interact with shoppers seeking more information about a particular product. This could be a great way for retailers to give consumers the product transparency they are craving. It could also be a way for suppliers to better tell their stories beyond the label to these consumers who want to know what a company stands for or against.”
He said the technology already exists, and it’s just a matter of retailers working with suppliers to test it. Stanley said it’s rare to shop in brick-and-mortar stores and not see some consumers wearing Apple AirPods or interacting with their smartphones. He can foresee voice assistants being used by retailers to direct connected shoppers to items in stores.
“Say a guy goes into the Walmart Supercenter and wants to buy the ingredients to cook his wife a fancy anniversary dinner, but he’s short on time and doesn’t really know where to start,” Stanley said. “By activating a shopping assistant through a smartphone or Apple AirPods, the consumer could be guided through the most efficient route in the store to get the complete list of ingredients needed. This is all technology available now for this type of application.”
Walmart, through its mobile application, has already made finding items in store easier through store mapping, but the retailer has not yet turned on a voice option.
Stanley said voice interfaces with internet of things (IoT) are going to be a bigger part of the retail shopping experience in the not-so-distant future. He said retailers like Walmart have the ability to build shopping lists for consumers based on their recent purchases. He said just about any task that requires a click on the computer or smartphone can also be turned into a conversation with a voice assistant.
“I could tell my Walmart voice assistant to add everything I need to make pad thai to my shopping list. It would be up to the assistant to decide which items are needed,” Stanley said.
He explained that this provides opportunities for suppliers to work closely with retailers to ensure consumers get what they expect. For years, suppliers have been fighting competition for shelf space. The next frontier will be equally as important to get on a shopping list curated by voice assistants, he added.
Stanley said shopping assistants who use voice conversations are going to become more mainstream in the next two years. But that will likely just be a stepping stone to the next wave of innovation that is more seamless and event-driven.
“Five years from now, I think more smart refrigerators will be doing the ordering of butter, milk and other perishables as the quantities run low,” Stanley said. “This is likely to mean more product suppliers forging partnerships with the likes of Samsung and other appliance makers to ensure they are not lost in the fray.”
Clint Lazenby, a co-founder of Legacy Retail Solutions in Rogers, said there are still plenty of unknown aspects around voice commerce, and the industry and platforms need to mature a bit more before more consumers broadly use it.
“The only thing we can really say for sure about voice is that it will be important for ordering things in the future,” Lazenby said. “I would also submit that any fast-moving consumer goods company or retailer who is not actively working or experimenting is taking a big risk of getting behind on the learning curve.”
A recent survey released by OneBuy.com asked consumers what they liked and disliked about using voice assistants. Respondents in the survey who used Google, Alexa or Siri agreed the voice assistants enabled the consumers to acquire information and make better decisions in a quicker manner.
The survey found 25.11% used the voice assistants to order products they use every day like household items. Only 3.5% said they used the voice assistants to locate local places such as restaurants or dry cleaners. More than 27% said voice-assisted shopping is hands-free, and that was what they liked the most.
One of the biggest concerns expressed by 32% of the respondents was they did not feel comfortable having a voice assistant choose goods or services on their behalf. The percentage of respondents who said they would like to see voice assistants help them locate products as they navigate inside a retail store was 31%.
Lastly, Stanley said voice assistants can be great equalizers for handicapped, elderly and young consumers who might not have dexterity in their hands for typing or even spelling correctly. He said speaking is the most natural form of communication, and that should bode well for voice assistant applications that can enhance consumers’ lives and increase business efficiencies.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.