"Hey Google, set my alarm for 8:30 a.m. tomorrow."
"Hey Alexa, what’s the weather like outside?"
These are among the most common demands and questions for voice-controlled personal assistants and smart speakers. But once consumers say "Alexa, order me bananas, Honey Nut Cheerios and a loaf of bread," difficulties arise. How many bananas? A pound? How ripe? What size box of Cheerios? And what type of bread and what brand?
Conversational commerce, as it is called, is still in its infancy across all industries, Jon Reily, vice president of commerce strategy at Publicis.Sapient, told Grocery Dive. Every retailer, from department stores to grocers, is trying to figure out how best to use it, he said.
But food retailers do have an advantage, Reily noted. Unlike other verticals like clothing stores where all products need to be seen before purchasing, much of grocery shopping is replenishment of items like cereal, cat litter, batteries or paper towels.
“I think simplicity is the easiest way to do it where there’s a lot of repeat purchases of groceries we do on a weekly basis and it’s easy to purchase things like laundry detergent," Carolina Milanesi, consumer tech analyst at Creative Strategies, told Grocery Dive. "It has a clear brand and you don’t have to specify the details of the actual product."
The problem, she said, is that consumers are creatures of habit. It’s going to take a lot more development from retailers, she said, to iron out the friction-riddled shopping experience of voice ordering.
“Consumers want convenience in whichever form it comes," said Milanesi. "It’s not quite convenient yet because it is complex and it might not understand the consumer due to background noises or accents."
Adding skills and curbing impulse buys
Voice commerce sales last year totaled $2.1 billion, according to eMarketer. That's equal to less than half of 1% of all U.S. e-commerce sales.
According to Gartner, consumers still prefer in-store shopping versus all else. About 62% of those surveyed preferred a physical store, 26% chose the web, 7% mobile and only .58% on a smart speaker. Most consumers who do use voice-controlled programs use them to research products, not buy them, eMarketer recently noted.
Nevertheless, some grocers have already adopted voice technology. Last year, Peapod launched an "Ask Peapod" skill for Alexa that allows consumers to voice order items that are added to the shopper's weekly grocery carts. Kroger partnered with the Google Assistant voice app, which can be accessed through not only Google Assistant, but also iOS and Android. Google is also a partner with Target and also Walmart, but last week Walmart revealed it had dropped Google's Shopping Actions service, which included voice ordering.
In order to use voice shopping through Amazon, retailers are using skills which have to be added to consumers' devices. Unfortunately, people don't use skills very often and there's a barrier of entry to install a skill, according to Reily. He explains that once the initial process of enabling a skill is through, which in itself takes multiple steps via the Alexa or Amazon app, users might have to go through an extensive initial set-up process depending on the complexity of the skill. Then to activate the skill they must say "Alexa, ask Peapod to add milk to my cart."
According to data from Dashbot via Business Insider Intelligence, 53% of Echo owners enable one to three Alexa skills and 14% use none at all.
For reference, the number one skill installed on the one million Amazon Echos is the Ring doorbell and even that only has about 60,000 installations, according to Reily.
“I think the biggest hurdle is that it still feels faster if I just sit at the computer and do it versus going through all these steps," said Milanesi. "Muscle memory is the hardest thing to change in consumers."
Profitable shopping habits and merchandising practices, meanwhile, often get lost in the translation from shelves and digital to voice. Impulse purchasing, which annually total around $5,400 per U.S. consumer, is a big business that doesn't easily translate to conversational converse, Milanesi explained.
Customers shopping online don't have the ease of reaching for a bag of M&Ms at checkout. But retailers are trying to simulate that experience by enticing customers with impulse purchases as they make their way to final purchase. Snacks, candy and even baked goods are products that can be teased and then tacked on to an order.
However, the same ability to entice customers doesn't exist in voice shopping. The same goes for offering discounts, specials and sales on products. With voice shopping, consumers don’t always know what the offers are and a lot of times it’s the promotional offers that drive them to buy a specific brand, Bob Hetu, vice president and retail analyst at Gartner, told Grocery Dive.
In order to do communicate discounts and offers to shoppers, Reily thinks there needs to be a two-way conversation between the consumer and the retailer using voice technology without the cloud disrupting the process. As of right now, when a device is activated, it records what is said, sends it to the cloud, gets a response on the items the consumer wants and then sends it back. “Until those conversations take place locally and don’t need the cloud to get a response it’s going to be difficult to get that one to one conversation where you can speak to the machine to tell it exactly what you want,” he added.
Aiding list management
Despite voice shopping's limitations right now, retailers are finding ways to effectively implement the technology.
In the U.K., e-grocer Ocado along with conventional grocer Morrisons have partnered with Amazon's Alexa on a voice skill that manages consumers' shopping lists.
"With the Ocado skill, customers can use their voice to add to and remove items from future orders or orders they’ve already completed," a post announcing the technology reads. "They can also ask for updates on order status and ask what’s in season."
During a recent industry presentation, Matt Kelleher, managing director with U.K. grocer Morrisons, said 1% of its shoppers are now using its Alexa-enabled voice-ordering service, which launched back in 2017. He said the typical shopper uses the platform three to four times a week. Kelleher explained that voice technology still has some kinks to work out including distinguishing between accents, but says it is "at a tipping point" with consumers.