Interview: Exploring Voice-Enabled Tech In Brick-And-Mortar Retail
Shopper media and innovation expert Ethan Goodman discusses piloting a voice assistant to help shoppers choose whiskey in a NYC wine and spirits store
How can in-store tech help deliver a frictionless customer experience—especially in cases where shoppers might not know exactly what they’re looking for? As voice assistants become increasingly present in homes, companies are beginning to explore retail applications.
For a podcast on seamless retail, PSFK founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes spoke to Ethan Goodman, a marketing technologist at The Mars Agency, who has been testing the use of voice interactivity to help shoppers choose whiskies at a New York wine and liquor store. Ethan describes the project and how the user experience has played out so far in this extract from their discussion.
Ethan: We’re really focused on the impact of voice and artificial intelligence—or conversational AI—on food and beverage. How voice and AI are making it infinitely easier for people to shop those categories.
Piers: Could you tell us about Bottle Genius?
Ethan: Bottle Genius is, from where we view it, the world’s first voice-powered retail shopping assistant. We got interested in voice about a year and a half ago, started building skills on Alexa and now on other platforms like Google Assistant for some of our clients, and then immediately asked the question, “What’s the application beyond the smart speaker in the home?”
Our group here is focused on retail and shopping. The natural answer to that was the physical store. We asked the question, “What would happen if we took voice and brought it into the brick-and-mortar retail environment, and created an application that would help with product selection and education at the shelf?”
The idea for the Bottle Genius powered by SmartAisle was born. What we’ve got is a voice-powered whiskey selector that is live at a boutique wine and spirit store called Bottlerocket in New York City.
Take me through the experience. I walk into the store… what happens next?
We’ve got some signage elements on the front window of the store. As you walk into the store, they tease this idea that we’ve got a voice-powered whiskey selector.
You’ll navigate back to the whiskey selection, which is two shelving units with five shelves each. We’ve got about 120 whiskey bottles featured. There’s a floor graphic on the ground that says, “Stand here and talk to the shelf.” You’ll stand right on that. When you look at the shelf you’re going to see an Amazon Echo affixed to the shelf with a sign above it that tells you exactly what to say.
In this case, it will tell you to say, “Alexa, open Bottle Genius.” Then, from there, it’s a guided experience. You’ll have a conversation with this Echo device. Alexa will ask you if you’re shopping for a gift, if you want to buy your favorite whiskey or if you want to discover something completely different.
Then from there, you’ll answer a handful of questions. It will provide you with up to three recommendations based on those answers. You’re answering questions about price, who the gift might be for, your favorites. For example, it will ask you what your favorite whiskey is. You’ll say, “Maker’s Mark.”
After a couple of other qualifying questions, it’ll make up to three recommendations for you and read out the names of those bottles and the descriptions for those bottles.
What we think is a nice feature is that, in addition to hearing about them, you’ll actually see those bottles light up on the shelf. We’ve got the voice service connected to a smart LED lighting system that will show you exactly where the bottle that you want is located.
To ask a cheeky question, does Alexa then fulfill the purchase and send it via Amazon rather than the store?
Eventually, maybe. Our clients would not have been too happy about that! But in all seriousness, though, we’ve just executed version 1.0—maybe not even 1.0. We foresee integrations with their point of sale system, with their delivery or ordering system, so we could absolutely consider the Amazon route later.
What are your learnings about user experience? Are people willing and interested to have speak out-loud in a store?
Before we did the installation we were in New York over the summer. We spent a couple of weeks in the Bottlerocket store, observing how people shopped, talking to customers, talking to associates.
The concept is rooted in research in customer behavior. Our hope is that we’re providing a tool that is useful and valuable, and that is going to help people with the shopping decision. I think there certainly is a bit of novelty. When we launched on February 1 there were many people that said to us, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
You would follow it up with questions about how useful it was. I think it remains to be seen, but ultimately, in a category like this where shoppers don’t have a lot of education coming in—in some cases, they’re maybe intimidated by asking a store associate—it can be helpful.
We think that it will apply to other categories, as well.
How do you see this evolve?
I think in a few ways. Obviously, as we’ve been having conversations about this with other brands and other retailers the question immediately comes up, “Can I do this without Amazon?” Whether it’s Walmart, CVS, Walgreens or anybody else, they’re not too keen on the notion of an Amazon device in their store having access to their data. So we’re exploring ways to make this platform work using Google, Microsoft Cortana and others. Our hope is that there is an application beyond alcoholic beverage and beyond this retailer.
We’re starting to have conversations with mass retailers in different categories, be it beauty, more traditional food and beverage or consumer electronics. We’re looking at those opportunities. The other thing that we’re asking ourselves is, “Is the form factor, or the experience, 100% right?”
Do people want to stand in front of the shelf and have an out loud conversation? We’re still exploring that. We’re asking questions like, “Could this work if I talked into my phone instead of out in the open to a smart speaker on the shelf?” We’re talking about whether we need the lights on the shelf in order for the experience to work.
The initial interest across our industry has been pretty overwhelming. Again, we launched this thing February 1 with a little bit of press. We released our demo video and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.
More insights on this topic can be found in PSFK’s research paper Enabling Seamless In-Store Checkouts. Listen to experts including Ethan discuss retail experience on our PurpleList podcast episode ‘Seamless Retail.’