The smart speaker revolution hit its stride in 2014, when Amazon released the first-generation Echo to a select audience of Prime members. It’s no accident that Amazon was the one to bring this influential bit of voice tech into the home. The e-commerce giant bet that people would start shopping by voice, and that bet is beginning to pay off.
We’re still in the early days of voice commerce. For the first few years of its existence, even Amazon’s Alexa could only re-order products you’d previously purchased with a mouse or a touchscreen. That changed in 2017, and today, consumers can buy just about anything on Amazon by speaking to the Echo. By the following year, more than a fifth of smart speaker owners were buying products using speech alone—and not just on Amazon. Since then, voice shopping has become the latest area of disruption in the e-commerce industry.
But it’s an emerging channel, and many retailers aren’t quite sure what to make of it yet. Here are our answers to some common questions about voice commerce.
What’s the definition of voice commerce?
Voice commerce is only a few years old; it may yet grow and expand, changing the way we use the term. For now, though, here’s a comprehensive definition:
Definition of voice commerce
1. The use of voice technology to buy or sell products, including pre-sale, purchase, and post-sale interactions between brands and customers
E.g., “… while voice commerce may not be near the point where people buy by voice many times a month, that could be where it ends up, based on data about what people buy with voice.” – Voicebot.ai
As this definition states, voice commerce is more than the actual moment of purchase (though that’s certainly an important step). Voice technology plays a role at every stage of the buyer’s journey, and the term “voice commerce” includes each of these steps. Let’s unpack that idea.
How does voice technology affect commerce at each stage of the buyer’s journey?
The buyer’s journey is a model that marketers use to engage most helpfully with prospective customers. In its most basic form, this model has three steps: Awareness and Discovery, in which buyers realize they have a need; Consideration, in which they start comparing products to meet that need; and Decision, in which they pull the proverbial trigger and make a purchase. We’d also add Support, because leading brands don’t tend to abandon their customers the instant they open their wallets. Here’s how voice technology can help brands at each of these stages, complete with voice commerce examples from around the world:
- Awareness and Discovery: At this stage, brands can help buyers by providing information—optimized for voice, of course—that identifies solutions. Brands provide helpful content, optimized for voice, to engage at this stage; this is a prime example of voice search in e-commerce, though search can also lead more directly to purchases at later stages of the journey. Brands may also leverage voice at this early stage by sponsoring apps. For instance, Crest and Oral-B tooth-care brands both sponsor an Alexa skill called “Chompers,” a tooth-brushing audio program for kids. Parents love the bedtime assistance, kids love the engaging characters, and the sponsoring brands love associating their names with the act of toothbrushing itself.
- Consideration: Next, there’s the consideration stage, in which customers actively seek out products. One key way voice technology plays into this stage is by helping buyers build shopping lists. These list-building apps help customers make purchasing decisions by suggesting products based on previous purchases, item popularity, or other criteria. French grocery store chain Monoprix was the first food seller to release a Google Assistant shopping list app, which they did in 2017, back when even Amazon’s voice commerce options were limited. Other retailers followed suit in the intervening years.
- Decision: Once buyers have learned about brands and settled on a product, it’s time to actually complete the transaction. Voice technology allows customers to make purchases through smart speakers, voice assistants on phones, in-store ordering kiosks, and other voice-enabled devices. Retailers that have released purchasing apps include H&M, Easyjet, and Domino’s Pizza (for which more than 50% of sales occur online).
- Support: After a purchase, customers still need to check delivery status, contact tech support, or get helpful hints on new ways to use a product. Voice apps make these tasks easy. French appliance seller Fnac Darty designed a Google Assistant collaboration called the Darty Button that saves customers time during support calls; users simply describe the issue to their device, and Darty will have a technician call them back, thus avoiding long waits on the line. But the real innovators in post-purchase support have been liquor companies. Johnny Walker’s Alexa Skill gives buyers a virtual guided whisky tasting, while Patron’s delivers cocktail recipes on request.
Could your customer service channels use a boost? Find out how voice technology can help in our free e-book.
Learn more about voice commerce across the buyer’s journey in our guest post from voice strategy consultant Oxana Gouliaéva, co-author of the book “La revolution des assistants vocaux,” or “The Voice Assistant Revolution.”
What devices are capable of voice commerce?
Today, voice commerce largely takes place through the leading smart speaker platforms, Amazon and Google, and through third-party apps released by brands and used on smart speakers and voice assistants. But every day, companies are introducing new voice channels through which customers interact with brands. In addition to smart speakers, people will soon shop through voice bots on websites and mobile apps, as well as on IoT devices like smart mirrors, smart appliances, and more.
And the voice commerce experience won’t be relegated to the home. Already, the fast food industry is shifting toward smart screens for drive-through orders. And with the 2020 pandemic forcing businesses to provide no-contact experiences and touch-free shopping, the in-store voice experience is no longer optional for retailers.
In short, voice commerce is a multi-device, multi-channel sales process. It takes place not just on smart speakers, but through voice assistants, websites, in-store screens: anywhere you find voice-user interfaces.
What are the benefits of voice commerce for the consumer?
Voice is a natural, frictionless way to interact with devices—and as more and more objects join the Internet of Things, voice user interfaces will become increasingly available. Voice commands give people an easy way to engage in e-commerce, even when their hands are full.
Voice commerce is particularly useful for common, low-dollar purchases like lunch, groceries, or public transit tickets. These are things that people buy every day, that don’t necessarily take a lot of forethought or research. They’re ideal for the simplicity of a voice purchase, and consumers agree; a Voicebot.ai survey of 6,000 people around the world found that twice as many people would prefer to order lunch with a voice device than buy furniture or appliances. (Incidentally, Voicebot.ai is a great source for voice commerce statistics and other industry news.)
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for touch-free shopping experiences. Voice devices in stores, such as ordering windows or kiosks, create a safer shopping experience by preventing contact with shared surfaces. In an age of pandemic, voice-powered in-store shopping is all but essential.
What are the benefits of voice commerce for brands?
Smart speakers and voice assistants give customers a whole new way to engage with their favorite brands, learn about products, and make a purchase. Consumers are getting used to voice technology, making voice channels key for customer engagement. When brands create custom voices, these channels also help to identify brands and increase their exposure. In short, voice technology extends brand reach.
But to get the full benefit of voice commerce, sellers need to develop custom branded voices that stand out from the competition. This distinct identifier creates a consistent experience at every stage of the buyer’s journey; listeners know they’re talking to one brand and not another when they hear that branded voice.
What’s the biggest challenge to the growth of voice commerce?
Natural language understanding (NLU) is the strain of AI reading comprehension that allows computers to understand human speech in all its subtle variations. While the technology has made incredible strides in recent years, it isn’t perfect. Voice user interfaces still misunderstand speakers, leading to a less-than-ideal experience. That can erode the trust necessary for a shopper to authorize payments, potentially slowing adoption of voice commerce.
The good news is that the deep neural networks that power speech-to-text functionality and NLU continue to learn from an increasingly large data set of human speakers. (Learn more about voice artificial intelligence here.) Accuracy in understanding the speaker’s intent will only improve, and at faster and faster rates. Familiarity will breed trust, and as voice user interfaces become more common, expect to see more consumers shopping through these systems.
What are some trends developing in voice commerce?
Voice commerce is spreading quickly among restaurants and grocers, and soon it will spread to every subset of the retail industry. Customers will be able to buy anything through their voice channels. Voice will emerge as a standard channel for brands to sell their products.
Better internet connectivity will allow even more voice commerce, creating ongoing relationships between brands and consumers. For instance, smart refrigerators or pantries may keep track of consumer supplies, notifying users when they’re running low on food or other replenishable products—and allowing them to make a purchase by voice.
Meanwhile, voice devices will continue to get better and better at discerning the user’s intent. That will lead to more natural interactions, smoother transactions, and wider adoption of voice technology, including for commerce. For more trends about voice assistants in particular, read our post on the subject here.
How do brands develop custom digital voices for voice commerce?
To engage in voice commerce, sellers need a text-to-speech (TTS) voice that identifies their brand. ReadSpeaker is a leading provider of TTS services, including custom branded voices. Clients can choose from any of our more-than 90 existing TTS voices, or work with ReadSpeaker to develop a unique TTS voice that authentically expresses their brand identity.
ReadSpeaker uses advanced deep neural networks to train voice models, creating the most human-like digital voices available with increasing efficiency. This DNN technology allows ReadSpeaker to provide an incredibly short development interval, deploying custom branded TTS voices quickly and across every voice-enabled customer touchpoint.
Custom branded voices from ReadSpeaker support branding initiatives at the corporate level, but they can also help to power individual products or apps, distinguishing any number of personas from one another and from the competition. Learn more about custom DNN voices for brands—and for voice commerce—here, or contact us to schedule a consultation.