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Speaking to design issues

Voice commerce is here. With its arrival, we need to talk not just about a new channel, but new retail models too, says Daniel Harris of experience design consultancy cxpartners. Jonathan Wright reports

As with mobile before, the era of voice-controlled commerce has, after long being heralded, arrived suddenly in the mainstream. According to research by Walker Sand, a fifth of US shoppers made a purchase using a voice-controlled device in 2017. This figure rises to 43% for millennials.

Big companies are already doing work in this space. Walmart and Tesco are both working with Google on voice-commerce initiatives, while BMW plans to help customers order on the move by installing Amazon’s Alexa in new models.

It’s clear other retailers will need to respond to a market development that we survey in detail a new InternetRetailing whitepaper, His Master’s Voice: Understanding and Unlocking the Potential of Voice Commerce. Nevertheless, before retailers decide where to spend, it’s worth taking a step back and considering how technology projects go awry within retail, and also to look at questions here from a usability and service design perspective.

A recurring theme with technological shifts within retail is what we might call got-to-have-one-of-those syndrome. In recent years, this has often been evident in apps that appear to have been introduced solely because retailers are conscious their customers are engaging via mobile, rather than because retailers have thought in any detail about exactly how and why customers are doing this. InternetRetailing research reveals the large number of multichannel retailers that have apps without store-finder or stock-checker functionalities.

Voice commerce – and more widely the move to an Internet of Things (IoT)-driven world where more and more devices are connected – introduces even more complexity, more opportunities for things to go wrong in new and interesting ways.

The road ahead

One way to approach the issues here is to consider where retailers’ strengths and weaknesses lie. In particular, as Daniel Harris, connected home strategy director with consultants cxpartners, points out, most retailers aren’t like Amazon, which is as much a technology company as a retailer, but rather they’re “traders” first and foremost.

“Trading is about marketing really hard, understanding customers, merchandising,” says Harris. “Now merchandising is really interesting because how do you merchandise when it comes to voice? There’s nothing for people to see or choose.”

New ways to use voice and screen together are likely to emerge, but Harris’s words nonetheless highlight a huge problem for retailers. Think of someone ordering an item via Amazon’s Alexa. If a customer is asking for something generic such as lightbulbs, how does a retailer or brand ensure it’s the company that gets the sale? To do so means being on Amazon in the first place, it means being found, which probably means leveraging Amazon Marketing Services to gain preferential status – and all of this activity potentially helps Amazon to consolidate its existing dominance in the marketplace.

No wonder companies such as Walmart and Tesco are investing in voice rather than letting Amazon get a free run, but not all retailers can afford to throw resources at the problem. An alternative approach is to remember that trust is central to building loyalty – and that customers trust retailers that prove they understand them, can demonstrate expertise, and which engage with their customers in ways that are genuinely helpful.

This perspective, says Harris, can form the basis for “a new marketing strategy” that looks beyond voice as a novel channel. “[It’s about] being present for people wherever they are,” he says. “Now people are present on many different devices in many different channels. If you can be useful to them on all of those channels, then you’re becoming more than just a mouthpiece for the goods that you’re trying to fly off the shelves, you’re becoming a trusted player.”

New business models

Harris is talking about a shift in emphasis away from pushing out marketing and merchandising messages. “I think this new marketing strategy is as much about being present through APIs, being present on other networks, being present on Alexa as it is about campaigning,” he says. “There’s clear correlation between asking what your users need and then you can help them because you know what they need. It’s a really good place to be in and that’s almost a new world compared to where retailers have traditionally been, which is, ‘Where do we need to be? We need to tell people about our product.’”

That’s not to say retailers shouldn’t invest in voice technology. It can be relatively quick and cheap to trial digital technologies, but as with apps there’s a danger of introducing innovations for their own sake. In contrast, says Harris, think of a company such as Mud Jeans, a Dutch fair trade-certified company that leases its denims, a way to ensure its service meets what users want, are sustainable and satisfy the standards of the ‘circular economy’.

Or think of the way B&Q now puts an emphasis on advising its customers how to go about potentially tricky DIY jobs. Catering for a different part of the market, B&Q’s outlets have a trade counter for construction professionals who know what they’re doing, and need to get in and out of the store as fast as possible.

The theme that unites these examples is the sense of companies that have thought deeply about what customers might need from them. To apply that to the opportunities afforded by voice commerce, it may help to begin by listening to customers and even letting them lead the conversation.

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