Voice search and its questionable future in eCommerce

Alexa - is voice search really the future of retail?

It’s an interesting question. Experts pitch voice search as the revolutionary product search method that will quickly overtake desktop and mobile shopping, but the reality has been a little different. 

Earlier this year, eMarketer lowered its forecast for people purchasing via a smart speaker in 2020, from 23.6 million to 21.6 million. While 21.6 million is still a considerable number of people, when you subtract those making digital media purchases – such as music and games – and those simply asking product research questions, the figure gets even smaller.

Consumers just aren’t that impressed or interested in buying products using their voice. 

Yet, digital marketing and eCommerce experts are still telling retailers to prepare for voice search. Is it really the future? Let’s find out.

The dream of voice search & eCommerce

The success of mobile commerce gives us a little insight into the dream and thinking behind voice commerce.  

mCommerce sales in the UK are expected to grow to £61.14 billion in 2020, making up more than half of total eCommerce sales. The growth of mobile shopping has far exceeded expectations and the previous growth of desktop eCommerce. Why? Well, it’s mainly thanks to the ease, speed and convenience of buying products from a mobile device. 

Since voice search is, in theory, easier, quicker and more convenient than taking out your mobile phone, it’s been hoped that voice purchases would outperform both desktop and mobile commerce. And the statistics have supported this dream:

  • One in five UK homes has a smart speaker. 
  • 20% of Google searches are voice searches. 
  • 65% of smart speaker owners feel comfortable making a purchase with their speaker. 
  • 43% of voice-enabled device owners use their device to shop.

Why isn’t voice commerce taking off?

However, there’s a growing sense that voice search for eCommerce is overrated. The statistics look great but the reality is full of concerns, including:

Functionality
Anyone who owns a smart speaker knows that you don’t always get the right answer to your question. In fact, in a research voice shopping expedition by Forrester, voice assistants from Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft failed to answer 65% of questions right – taking the convenience out of voice shopping. 

Unfortunately, the tech just isn’t there yet. 

Experience
For anyone into shopping for the experience, voice search detracts from the pleasure. Online retailers use photographs, videos and customer reviews to overcompensate for the inability to touch, feel and try on products – voice search can’t do this. 

This not only makes it challenging to buy products such as clothing, furniture or electronics, but it also turns shopping from an experience into a task – which not everyone wants. 

Practicalities
Shopping is an information-rich experience that is difficult to replicate via voice. Sure, asking Alexa to order kitchen towel is easier than logging online to search and order yourself, but beyond everyday essentials, voice purchases are harder. 

Listening to descriptions, comparing items, researching competitors – as soon as a customer wants details, voice assistants struggle and generally send users to the web. 

Security
There are significant privacy and security concerns over smart speakers. Sharing purchase behaviours and credit card details with Siri or Google Home only adds to those concerns, making shoppers reluctant to use them. 

Behaviours
Finally, voice shopping has to overcome a big hurdle: learned behaviours. While physical and online retail are very different, they’re also very similar. Customers browse products, compare items and ask questions. 

Voice changes the concept of shopping entirely, and not everyone is ready for that.

Should online retailers prepare for voice commerce?

However, despite the unimpressive take-off and the questions surrounding its future, you shouldn’t ignore voice search completely. 

Big names have invested big budgets into smart speakers and assistants, so you can bet that the technology will continue developing until it’s successful. In the meantime, there are still ways you can benefit and prepare for voice commerce. 

Customer lifetime value
Smart speakers and assistants drive CLV because they make it easy to repeat purchases. Want to re-order the same product – just tell Alexa. This is especially useful for health and beauty brands and everyday essentials. 

To benefit, use your website to generate leads and sales, use your fulfilment partner to deliver an outstanding customer experience, and then use a smart speaker skill to enable voice re-orderings. 

Fulfilment
Speaking of fulfilment, smart speakers are brilliant for keeping your customers updated on the order process, further enhancing the customer experience. 

An Alexa skill that allows customers to ask “where’s my order” or tells customers when their item is due, helps your brand to stand out and make repeat purchases more likely. 

Personal shoppers
As search assistants learn more about their masters, it’s feasible for everyone to have their own personal shopper who uses connected devices to make product recommendations. 

When you image a customer asking Siri to “recommend me some dresses for my brother’s wedding next month,” Siri projecting a slideshow of perfect outfits onto the TV screen, and your customer saying “yes, order me that one!” you realise that the potential of voice commerce is enormous. 

Reminders
Voice assistants are expanding into vehicles, meaning that they will increasingly be used to set on-the-go reminders: “Cortana, remind me to purchase new car mats when I get home.” And, with search assistants trying to become even more helpful, they’ll accompany their reminder with a list of product suggestions and an email full of relevant links.

Establishing your brand name and keeping your website at the top of the search engine results makes it more likely that smart speakers will recommend your products and that customers will recognise your name and act upon the recommendation. 

Final thoughts

If you think of voice search, smart speakers and virtual assistants only in their current form and as a way to obtain new customers, then yes, voice search is overrated. 

But, if you consider the potential for repeat custom, advancements in tech, and the pooling of tools (such as smart speakers and TV screens), you realise that voice search could well be the future of eCommerce – you just need to prepare.

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Gary Rees

Gary Rees

Gary Rees is the owner of Synergy Retail Support, one of the leading SME fulfilment centres in the UK. Having successfully grown the business for over 30 years and with relationships with most household brands, he now looks to partner with customers rather than just act as a supplier so that both parties can grow together. Gary has extensive knowledge in retail compliance, production technologies, shipping details and customer service.

Feel free to contact me personally if you’d like to discuss your business.

gary.rees@synergyretailsupport.co.uk
+44 (0)3453 402 980