Will Voice-Powered Shopping Be The Death Of Brands?

Will Voice-Powered Shopping Be The Death Of Brands?

Rob Curran, head of customer experience at Wunderman, asks: in a world where we ask our AIs to sort out most of our shopping for us, what place is there for brands?

  • 28 december 2017

Voice technology has been hyped to death. Ever since Star Trek first planted the idea of talking to a computer, industry commentators have been obsessed with the idea that taps and clicks will soon become voice commands – eventually with the goal of transforming the way we shop.

Yet now, after years of uninspiring consumer adoption, we’re finally seeing major moves to make voice-powered shopping part of our lives.

But what does this mean for retail brands and their customer experience?

Well, everything.

“Alexa, do my shopping for me.”

There’s been a lot of excitement around voice-powered shopping.

Amazon has made a big play for voice technology with Alexa, which is now being updated with five variants (Echo Dot, Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Show and Echo Spot). Ocado has recently launched a voice-driven shopping app for Alexa, supplementing Amazon’s own shopping experience on the platform.

Meanwhile Google has paired with Walmart to offer voice-enabled shopping via Google Assistant. The move joins the tech giant and one of the largest retailers on the planet to provide a seamless experience on Google Home (and its new Mini and Max variants) and on smartphones.

Having your own artificial intelligence (AI) personal shopper is becoming an exciting prospect. Alexa has finally propelled voice into the mainstream, after it transpired that the awkwardness of talking to your phone (or, heaven forbid, your smartwatch) doesn’t transfer to the privacy of your own home.

Now, however, consumer adoption is starting to take hold, with people increasingly more open to giving voice commands on smartphones and in public places. No one is quite as excited about this as those hoping to become the go-to platform for voice commerce.

It’s still touch and go; voice assistants aren’t perfect yet. But given time, these will become powerful tools for getting pretty much everything done. And this poses a huge threat to retailers and brands.

But why?

How Amazon and Google could seize control of the customer experience

If Amazon, Google or another AI application take control of the buying process, the customer experience will be taken out of the hands of retailers.

That’s the power of voice. If you can condense the customer journey, from activation to consideration to purchase, into a single voice command (“Alexa, order me a new dishwasher”), there’s no room for retailers to directly interact with customers.

There would be no place for branding either. An AI would weigh up a whole range of factors in deciding what to buy for a consumer, combining price, reviews, features and the customer’s own specified preferences about what they like and dislike in a product.

It won’t care about brand, or the unconscious and human motivations that lead people to trust or enjoy one brand over another. It’s cold, hard facts about how the product performs that will determine AI-driven purchasing decisions.

Yes, many purchasing decisions will stay firmly in human hands. We’re unlikely to trust an AI to pick a luxury car for us, or a house, although we might be interested in some of its suggestions.

But there are plenty of products that simply don’t require any human involvement whatsoever. No one gets excited over buying toilet roll or bottled water, or particularly cares who they buy that missing HDMI cable from.

In these instances, all the customer cares about is that it is the best product they need, for the lowest price. And AI can take care of that, without the customer even needing to think about picking a retailer to shop from and a branded product to buy. The customer simply needs to say what they want.

This poses a big threat to both traditional and online retail, especially in product categories with very low customer enthusiasm and engagement.

Preserving the customer experience

So what can retailers and brands do to stay in the game?

Clearly there’s a need for retailers and brands to acknowledge that some of their customers in the future are going to be AIs. Providing AIs with up-to-date information on your products, adapting pricing to compete effectively, and making it as easy as possible for your products to be found and understood on search engines and price comparison platforms will become increasingly important.

But there’s also a need to improve the service we provide to human customers in the here and now.

Shopping needs to be an enjoyable experience if you want them to keep visiting your store and looking at your products. The temperature needs to feel right, the décor needs to feel appropriate, the staff and other customers need to feel familiar, the products need to be pleasant to touch, and not just in the unboxing experience, but on the shelves as well.

To some extent, everybody knows this. But the precision and the depth we apply to developing the customer experience needs to become much more sophisticated if you want to create enjoyable experiences for human customers.

In the work we do at Wunderman, we take an atomistic approach. We break down the customer experience into elements (e.g. the colour of the walls, the layout of the store), and then we analyse how those elements interact with each other to form an overall experience, and how they can be adjusted to improve the experience even further.

It is those tiny details that us humans subconsciously pick up on. The vibe of a room is determined as much by the warmth of the air as it is in the pattern on the curtains, because all of these little elements combine to form an overall picture. And it is those tiny details that we need to excel at to create the best customer experience in the future.

The likes of Amazon and Google are pouring an enormous amount of resource into making their voice-enabled products as seamless and enjoyable as possible.

For the rest of us, enriching the human aspects of the experience must be our goal. It is the only way that you can retain human customers, who ultimately will prove to be the most loyal and the highest value when compared with AIs. And that’s something that can help you compete effectively today, as well as sustainably into the future.

Rob Curran, head of customer experience at Wunderman, spends every day thinking about how to make more compelling, more effective and more influential experiences. Before he got into the tech world, he went to art school and trained in design before becoming a freelance journalist, reporting on the London art scene.  He then moved into the digital industry, first helping Groupon launch in the UK, and subsequently working in digital agencies, producing research, UX consultancy, and strategy.

Voice technology has been hyped to death. Ever since Star Trek first planted the idea of talking to a computer, industry commentators have been obsessed with the idea that taps and clicks will soon become voice commands – eventually with the goal of transforming the way we shop.

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