Behind the Growing Pains of Voice AI in Retail

The in-home voice assistant market is still very much in a nascent stage. Though millions of American homes host an assistant and use it regularly, it remains an awkward experience that may take some getting used to. Retailers should not disregard voice shopping just due to a slow start. Observers and researchers predict a market explosion to $40 billion by 2022.[1] If businesses want a piece of that growth, they need to better understand voice shopping and aim to position themselves in the market even as it still suffers growing pains.

It may be tough news to swallow for some, but customers generally only make smaller purchases over large ones via their home assistant. Without easy access to an online marketplace or reviews to compare pricing and research on a product, customers will not make the jump blindly.[2]

An omnichannel in-store experience faces a similar challenge that is complicated further by being audio-only. Purchasing an entirely new brand or product is unlikely given the lack of long descriptions or photos. Customers may hesitate to pull the trigger without being familiar with the product, if not a regular user of it.

The most successful retailers in this space will seek to make their assistant a personalized and genuinely useful helper in the shopping experience.[3] To that end, retailers need developed and holistic customer profiles. Contextual data is everything to take Alexa, Siri, or Cortana from a distant robotic entity to something close to a friend for customers, remembering their likes and dislikes and making sincere recommendations.

When shopping in person, studies have shown customer preference toward using voice assistants to make their shopping lists and to address customer service concerns.[4] Retailers therefore cannot simply offload customer service onto an AI. It must be a useful experience on its own merits, or businesses risk alienating customers.

As major players like Amazon and Microsoft stake their claim, an interesting trend is emerging around them. Many businesses are partnering directly with either of the voice giants, joining programs like “Amazon Choice,” which will recommend a partner brand over competitors some portion of the time.[5] While an effective short-term solution, it remains to be seen if this will help or hurt voice’s long-term viability and trustworthiness.

This market is bound for major growth. If positioned well, retailers can adapt to new developments and find applications for the omnichannel shopping experience that’s become the modern standard. The first step is understanding what customers want from their Alexa, and what makes for a memorable, helpful assistant along the way.






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