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The retail sector knows better than most the effects of disruptive technology – and the consequences of ignoring it. Retailers are seeing what they always believed to be the case challenged, improved or replaced: it’s now all about what customers want, when they want it and how they want to receive it that counts. All of this started with the first online sale: Sting’s album ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’ in 1994. From this point onward, customers started to realise that if you want to buy something, you don’t necessarily have to go to it – it can very easily come to you. The internet provided the platform for e-commerce and this changed the way that we shop forever. So, what impact will readily available, easy to use, accurate, reliable voice recognition technology have for retailers?
A report by OC&C Strategy Consultants (February 2018) claims that the value of voice shopping in the UK now stands at £0.2bn, or 0.1% of total online spend, but it is expected to rocket in the next five years to £3.5bn. The report states that just as the prevalence of smart phones drove the m-commerce market, voice commerce is set to grow as a result of rising smart speaker sales, which have boomed since 2014 when Amazon launched its first product to market. Around 10% of UK households already own a smart speaker but this is projected to increase to 50% by 2022 as voice recognition technology becomes increasingly widespread.
I am told that every conversation about voice recognition technology must include a reference to Amazon; as an Amazon Prime customer, I can order and pay for kitchen rolls, bin bags and make other replenishment purchases by asking Alexa to order it for me. It’s quick, efficient and means that I can shop whilst cooking my breakfast – something that Alexa also helps me with by counting down the time it takes for my egg to boil.
But it’s not just staple product sales that can be made using a digital assistant. In 2018, Retail Assist’s client ASOS launched ‘Enki’, their AI shopping guide, which allows customers via Google Assistant to interact directly with the brand to get style advice and to make purchases. Customers can send Enki photos of clothing items they like and the technology will search for similar products, then present them as a range from which selections and purchases can be made.
ASOS admit that Enki is still learning and they are asking customers for feedback on the good and the bad of the experience, as well as providing any dream-big ideas for Enki’s future direction. This is an excellent example of collaborative development; retailers asking their customers what they want to make their shopping experience better. So, when will our digital assistant, using all of the data it has available, be able to identify which outfit we should buy for an upcoming social event in our calendar and will we ever just say “OK, let’s buy it”?
When I first began building and implementing technology for retailers back in the early 1990s, it was all about improving efficiency: take an existing process and make it run faster, better and with less friction. Whilst voice technology can now listen and respond, it is still in its infancy, because that’s all it does. It will only truly come of age when your digital assistant starts a conversation with you, rather than just joining in. Today, machines learn: they compute millions of simultaneous transactions to find the answers which give us the best outcomes. The insights they can provide are traditionally only in the domain of experts. Imagine coming home from work and your digital assistant informs you that “Today, whilst you were out, I identified that we had a water leak, so I turned the water off at the mains and called the plumber. They are arriving tomorrow morning at 10am to fix the problem. I have also placed orders for all of your staple items where supplies are running low. The delivery will arrive tomorrow at 10.30am. Using currency calculations, based upon the markets, I suggest the best day to buy the YEN you will need for your upcoming holiday is Thursday 24th January”.
When we become reliant on our digital assistant to take over certain aspects of our day-to-day life, only then voice will become a ‘can’t live without’ technology. We are now well advanced in the ‘age of access’ when it comes to technology evolution and we are quickly moving into the ‘age of use’. Voice recognition technology allows humans to communicate with their computers using the method many enjoy the most: the sound of their own voice.
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