The Supply Side: Voice commerce remains an open frontier in retail

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 661 views 

Consumers use their voices to get answers from smart speakers more than ever, whether asking Siri for directions with their iPhone or asking Alexa about the temperature in Dallas. According to Steve Wiideman, a senior search strategist at Wiideman Consulting Group, few are using it to make retail purchases.

Wiideman said the voice commerce frontier is wide open for retailers and suppliers to open lines of communication with consumers. Before the pandemic, Wiideman said 180 smart speakers — Amazon Echo or Google Home — were shipped each minute to consumer households. According to the Visual Capitalist, in that same 60 seconds, 188 million emails were sent, and Google processed 3.8 million search queries.

As the pandemic gripped the nation in 2020, tech experts predicted voice control device shipments would grow 30% over 2019 when companies shipped 141 million smart home devices around the globe. Wiideman said the smart home applications for voice controls did accelerate amid the pandemic. But few retailers or suppliers are tapping their potential using voice to draw consumers to their stores and products.

He said Amazon had done more work than most retailers using voice search applications to communicate with consumers, and Google also has a head start with voice search even though it is not a retailer.

Walmart launched voice shopping in 2019 for groceries with Google assistant, but the retail giant has said little about it since that time. Walmart said the application is still alive and open to the public. One caveat is that the user must already have a grocery account set up with some other device before the voice service can be used, according to Walmart corporate spokeswoman Molly Blakeman.

In a recent test of the Google-Walmart initiative, Wiideman asked his Google speaker to connect him to Walmart. He was then prompted to set up an account. Wiideman said it looks as if Walmart is targeting existing customers with this voice application. Walmart did connect with Apple smartphones for voice shopping in November 2019. When testing this recently on an iPhone, Siri did add products to the existing customer’s virtual cart.

Blakeman said both of the voice shopping platforms were open to the public, but she could not provide data on how much voice commerce is used at Walmart or any other customer feedback.

Wiideman said Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are getting smarter and are listening and learning, which should improve search results. He said voice search is inevitable in the future and an essential piece of the internet of things (IoT) puzzle.

Wiideman said Amazon has the most e-commerce sales in the nation, and less than 2% of purchases are made via voice. He said that indicates most consumers are not yet using voice to make purchases, especially first-time buys.

He said Tide, owned by Procter & Gamble, has conducted interesting work in voice. When consumers tell Google to talk to Tide, they get information on the brand and products, tips for getting out stains, directions on how to do laundry and how to find products. The site stopped short of selling the product directly to customers.

Wiideman said the voice search application gives Tide a window and direct line of communication to the end-user. It would be easier to push coupons or other information directly to consumers through voice applications.

His firm has worked with Skechers to expand its voice search capabilities. Wiideman said Skechers offers consumers the option to purchase shoes directly at a slightly higher cost than retail. He said some people often prefer to directly contact the manufacturer for products they buy because of the authenticity and direct line of communication. Wiideman said product manufacturers are missing opportunities to market themselves directly to consumers through voice.

Think tank Review 42 recently reported that 20% of mobile queries are done with voice search. Nearly 40 million Americans own smart speakers and 58% have used voice search to find information about a local business. The report also said 72% of people who use voice search devices claim the technology has become part of their daily routine. As of March, Review 42 said 43% of smart speaker owners use the technology to shop.

Kimberly Wilcox, a business consultant in Plano, Texas, said she uses her Amazon device to ask Alexa to reorder consumable items when they run low. She said Alexa would prompt her for the reorder in most cases and all she has to do is confirm, and the item is added to her virtual cart. She has tried to use her Google smart speaker device to connect to Walmart online grocery and, but Google said that task could not be accomplished because she does not have an account at Walmart.

Wiideman said it would be interesting to see which retailers and suppliers are the first to advertise their connection to smart devices to initiate and complete retail sales.

“I suspect once we see a television commercial that tells consumers to ask Google or Alexa to make a purchase, there will be lots of others following suit. The first step is adding voice search capabilities to company websites,” he said.

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.