Voice assistants take center stage in 2017

Google Home
Voice assistant technology such as using Google Express via Google Home or Amazon’s Prime Now via Alexa is set to permanently alter the way consumers shop.

CallRail's Mark Sullivan talks about the realities of voice assistants in retail

Mark Sullivan

Voice assistants can be a big game-changer for retailers and shoppers, according to Mark Sullivan, director of demand generation at CallRail. And retailers that successfully navigate the competing consumer interests of convenience and full disclosure will come out on top. 

FierceRetail caught up with Sullivan to hear why voice assistants are the future of retail and what concerns this new technology poses for consumers and brands.

FierceRetail: Why do you think voice assistants are the wave of the future?

Mark Sullivan: The success of any new technology is typically limited more by deployment and adoption than innovation. This is particularly true with voice assistants, which have been part of our collective culture since the days of Knight Rider (remember KITT?) All indications are that 2017 will be the year voice assistants reach massive consumer deployment. Voice has the ability to shape several industries, especially retail. Similar to the shift from desktop to mobile, voice assistants will prove yet again the power of the almighty device. Whether it's shopping on Amazon’s Prime Now via Alexa or using Google Express via Google Home, voice assistant technology is set to permanently alter the way consumers shop.

FR: What advantages does this platform have over other POS systems?

MS: When it comes to shopping, voice assistant technology provides unrivaled convenience. Rather than wasting time going to the store, consumers can now simply tell Alexa what they want and it will be delivered to their doorstep. This rings especially true for household products like toilet paper, toothpaste and other items that consumers don’t have to put much thought into buying. As artificial intelligence continues to advance, voice assistants will learn more about us, too. Just as our mobile devices store our search history, voice assistants and smart home devices will soon know when we need specific items based on previous buying patterns.

FR: What are some of the challenges associated with voice assistants? 

MS: Consumer trust is something retailers must consider when adopting voice-based technologies. Consumers heavily rely on reviews when online shopping, and using a smart home device to make purchases may eliminate that step, removing common trust signals from the buyer’s journey. For instance, consider buying shampoo from Amazon Prime via Alexa. Chances are, you’ll opt for convenience and take the risk. Retailers who navigate the competing interests of convenience and full disclosure will win the “trust” game against other platforms. 

FR: Does this type of platform bring up any security concerns?

MS: In the same way our fingerprint acts as purchasing permission from our mobile devices, our voice will soon do the same for smart home devices. When shopping, our voices will become our digital identities—used to make payments, enter home addresses and more. This could be intimidating to some and bring up privacy and fraud concerns. The promise of convenience is closely tied to the security of payment information with these platforms.

FR: Is there another retailer that you think is on the right path with voice assistant thus far beyond Amazon?

MS: Amazon has been spearheading voice technology with Alexa, but Google is quickly catching up with Google Home. Although Google lacks the inventory and social signals Amazon has, Google may consider integrating with a large retailer like Walmart in order to supply both data and fulfillment services in the future. Since Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com last year, they’ve been focused on reorganizing the entire company to increase their e-commerce competitiveness. A partnership with a company that is predicted to have millions of voice assistants in homes by year-end might be what both Google and Walmart need to compete with Amazon. 

FR: Do you think voice assistants will be more popular in certain retail verticals over others?

MS: Voice assistant technology will thrive within certain retail verticals but prove challenging in others. Clothing retailers, for instance, may have a more difficult time reaching customers via voice, as clothing shoppers value visuals when considering factors such as size and style. CPG brands, however, have the ability to flourish in this early artificial intelligence era. Since most consumers already know their preferred household products, it’s easy and convenient to place these orders via voice technology.

FR: For retailers who want to get started implementing voice assistants, what are the first steps?

MS: While much of this early era of voice assistants will be dominated by the big names in retail, the market is far from being set in stone. All retailers should keep their eye on voice by tracking as much as possible about where customers are coming from and how they prefer to shop. By looking into web activity, calls, SMS and inventory to determine what’s driving results, retailers can stay ahead of the game. Businesses who paid close attention to the consumer shift from desktop to mobile thrived, and now it’s just as important to do the same with voice. Retailers who do so now will most certainly win later.