It’s good to talk

In 1990, BT – the UK’s primary telecommunications provider – ran an advertising campaign with the strap line: “it’s good to talk”. But: were they right? Ian McMurray looks at voice interaction in retail.

For some people, getting married was a life-changer. For others, the life-changer was the birth of their first child. Well, I’m married and have three children – but the life-changer for me was the ability to sit at my desk and turn the lounge lights on. Or sit in front of the TV and turn my electric blanket on – saving the arduous trek upstairs.

I’m talking, of course, about my Amazon Echo – or Alexa, as it (she?) is more commonly known. Want to be reminded of an appointment? Ask Alexa. Need to set a timer? Ask Alexa. Need to know the capital of Tanzania? Ask Alexa.

No, of course Alexa doesn’t enable me to do anything I couldn’t have easily done before. But she does make it more convenient – and, yes, more fun. And I don’t use a fraction of her capabilities. I read recently that 25% of UK households have embraced home automation in some form – and you can bet that the majority of those installations are fronted by Alexa, or Google’s equivalent, Home.

We’ve fallen in love with interacting with ‘stuff ’ via voice. According to Amazon, there are 100 million Echos and Dots installed around the world. At the  beginning of the year, there were said to be over 150 products with Alexa built in; more than 28,000 smart home devices made by more than 4,500 manufacturers that work with Alexa; and over 70,000 Alexa skills. Then, there’s another 52 million Google Home devices that have been bought. (And I’m not
talking about Apple’s Siri because, with the Amazon and Google offerings, you have to consciously choose them – with Siri, it comes by default with your Apple iPhone.)

Beyond the home

Here’s the thing, though. I’d bet that 99% of those speakers are installed in a consumer/domestic environment (which is, after all, the market they’re targeted at). But what’s been exercising a lot of people is whether our love of voice interaction with a computer can extend beyond the home – into the office, for example, or into retail.

It’s proving an interesting debate. In theory a no-brainer – why wouldn’t we interact with everything we can by voice? It turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a little more complex than that. Take a classic corporate application where you get multiple choices on an on-screen menu. Does it really make sense for ‘Alexa’ to read those out to you? By the time she gets to the end – much like those bloody automated call handling systems that e.g. insurance companies use as their front end – you’ll have forgotten what the first option was. Many have concluded that some combination of intelligent interactive displays and voice command is the way forward – such that, in the example just quoted, you’d read the choices on the display and then speak your response. Of course, actually touching the screen isn’t a whole lot harder to do than saying “Option C”…

Conversational commerce

But there is one industry that has proven particularly adept at taking on board new technologies and making them work: retail. Already, using voice to order goods online is happening via either a mobile phone or a smart speaker. It’s what consultancy Capgemini, for one, calls “conversational commerce” – and the company thinks it’s going to be a big thing, with 40% of us doing it within three years, up from 3% today.

That is, however, somewhat limited. Alexa, for example, will need the requisite skills. You can shop Amazon with her – of course. In the US at least, you can order
your Hawaiian Pizza from Pizza Hut (if you absolutely must. Everyone knows that pineapple has no place on pizza). Amazon has also launched Alexa for hotels and motels. At least, for now. Google has reputedly signed deals with US retailers like Walmart, Target and Walgreens. In the UK, Google announced a partnership with the country’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, to make hundreds of thousands of products available for ordering by voice. But: the capability is far from universal.

And then there’s the issue of security. As if people weren’t already nervous enough about having all their conversations stored in the cloud – who needs their children to be able to order anything, any time?


But: interacting with e-tailers via voice unquestionably has momentum. Which is all very well for e-tailing. But what about bricks and mortar stores? Can there ever be a place for Alexa – or something very much like her? I think there can – and here’s why.

Here in the UK, we have a chain of household electrical/electronic goods stores. I won’t mention their name, but there’s probably scarcely a Brit who hasn’t shopped there. Why do we shop there? Well, it’s not because of the knowledgeability of the staff, that’s for sure. Even the simplest of questions about a product is usually met with a blank, faintly incredulous stare. (You know what they say: “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys…”) It’s price that gets people through the door – people who want to see and touch a product rather than just buy it off a web page, and are prepared to pay a small premium for it. (Either that, or they do what we did when recently refurbishing our kitchen: do your research online, narrow it down to two or three fridge/freezers, go into a store to look at them – and then order your choice online for less…)

On the other hand we have a garden centre close to us – and that’s always packed with people buying seeds and bulbs and plants and everything it takes to make your garden look like you want it. They’re not the cheapest – but, to a man/ woman, they’re incredibly knowledgeable about their products. In fact, they’re remarkably knowledgeable about everything to do with gardening and will willingly give their advice.

Surviving – and thriving

And that’s what bricks and mortar retail is best at – customer interaction on a level that isn’t purely transactional. That – and products you can see and touch. If retail stores are to survive – thrive, even – against the onslaught of online shopping, those are the two things they’ve got to get right. Already, interactive digital
signage is proving a huge boon, allowing, for example, shoppers to find out more about products in-store. Do you have it in pink? Do you have it in my size? A natural language, voice-actuated front end to such systems, if done right, seems like it could be a real winner.

The key, of course, is ‘natural language’. As good as Alexa is, there are still questions you can ask her that you need to rephrase so that she understands what you want. (And, by the way, this is no less of a challenge for online retailers.) It’s also an unending task to keep a voice assistant updated, given the rate of product turnover – as the seasons pass, for example. Again, though: that’s no less of a challenge in the online world.

The biggest challenge, however, for ‘real’ shops will be the speed at which they can implement these new approaches. Capgemini – again – found that 31% of us
would prefer a voice assistant interaction to visiting a shop or bank branch – and that was up from 20% a year previously.

That voice interaction with the machines around us will continue to grow seems unquestionable. Already – in the relative infancy of the technology – it seems we’re hooked. According to a study from NPR and Edison Research, 65% of those surveyed wouldn’t want to go back to a life without their smart speaker. That’s an awful lot of people no longer making that arduous trek upstairs.

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