A recent article from thenextweb.com entitled “Alexa Isn’t the Shopping Behemoth Amazon Hoped It Would Be” throws a large pail of cold water on the idea that voice-enabled assistants are the future of shopping. The author notes that “only 2 percent of people who own an Alexa-enabled device have used it for shopping [in the past year]” and that “worse, 90 percent of those who have used it for shopping in the past have used it only once.” While they allow that about 20 percent of Alexa users have researched products and promotions with voice commands, statistics show that consumers tend to make their purchases on other devices. A similarly skeptical article on The Information notes that an Amazon insider remarked: “clearly voice shopping is not yet in the stage of being a mass market product.”
The question is: is voice shopping really a flop, or have brands simply been doing it wrong?
Reports Of Voice Shopping’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
If 98 percent of the tech-savvy consumers who already own a digital assistant are uninterested in voice shopping, and the people who have tried it are unlikely to get into the habit, voice shopping must be doomed, right?
We would argue that making such a diagnosis at this stage would be extremely premature. Skeptics would surely point to a consumer unwillingness to buy products without obtaining information on price, perusing product reviews, or even experimenting with features in a retail setting. Surely it’s easier to gain this relevant information in store, or on a smartphone, laptop or tablet screen?
While we concede that such arguments do indeed appear to hold water, we think there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.
What Is it Good For?
You obviously would never buy a car by flopping down on your sofa and commanding “Alexa, buy me a 2015 Honda Civic.” As The Information’s article notes, you probably wouldn’t even buy a camera in this manner.
However, even voice shopping skeptics note that people shopping through their smart speakers generally buy “paper towels, detergent, and other home staples.” It’s time for brands and marketers to realize that voice shopping’s allure and utility to consumers will be as a means of product replenishment, rather than product selection.
This is an extremely important distinction.
The Replenishment Economy
A fascinating recent article in Retail Prophet eloquently makes the case for both the emergence of the “replenishment economy” and rethinking the entire philosophy of marketing. The author notes that ‘ if we accept, for example, Unilever’s definition of shopper marketing, which is to “focus on the process that takes place between that first thought the consumer has about purchasing an item, all the way through the selection of that item” we have to ask the questions; what if the consumer no longer has to think about or select the item at all? What if that selection is largely done for them by technology?’
By current estimates, there are 15 billion connected smart devices on the planet, most of which are phones, computers, and tablets. But as the Internet of Things blossoms, that number will skyrocket. Most homes will boast smart appliances that can track the contents of our fridges, medicine cabinets, and washing machines. These smart devices can warn us when our supply of household staples grows low, and even re-order the items we need without a consumer ever knowing that they’re out of tissues, tampons or Tylenol.
Amazon’s launch of the Dash Button was one step toward the replenishment economy. The idea is that a Bluetooth enabled button placed on an appliance would automatically order a related product when supplies ran low, which would immediately be shipped to the consumer with a corresponding debit to their Prime account. The service was initially launched primarily for printers and washing machines, but has expanded to include pet food, coffee makers, and other everyday products. ‘“We’ve all felt the frustration of realizing we’re out of something we frequently use, so it’s no surprise customers are loving the convenience of Dash Replenishment, which makes shopping for everyday consumables completely disappear,” said Daniel Rausch, Vice President of Smart Home, Amazon. “Dash Replenishment takes advantage of smart, connected products, enabling a device to track supply usage so a customer never runs out of what they need.”’.
Although Dash Buttons were indeed a step in the right direction, buying one item at a time using individual buttons is actually pretty wasteful, time-wise. Adding products for replenishment via voice by adding to basket as part of your weekly shop with your preferred retailer, on the other hand, is an easier, frictionless way for consumers to replenish their favourite products.
Voice commands could also serve the same function as the Dash Button. Once your digital assistant knows your favourite place to shop, and your preferred brand of deodorant, having Alexa buy things online seems a lot less daunting. Once consumers realize that product replenishment is instant, effortless, and inexpensive when done through a smart speaker, only the most myopic analysts would bank on a continued resistance to voice shopping.
If you think about your last trip to the supermarket, how many of the items you bought required a careful analysis of price, quantity, freshness, or anything else? We would guess that well over half of the things you bought were the things you always automatically buy: flour, sugar, Colgate Toothpaste, Kleenex, Heinz Ketchup, tinned salmon, and washing-up liquid. These aren’t things that require detailed comparison shopping and a close reading of product reviews. You’d be happier, and your life would be easier, if they just magically appeared on your doorstep.
Soon they will.
What Does The Replenishment Economy Mean To Brands?
If we accept that shoppers will eventually adapt to this technology, we must prepare ourselves for a dramatic shift in the nature of marketing. Sensors don’t watch TV, Alexa isn’t impulsive, and a middle-aged man reclining in his chair can’t try free samples. As retail expert Doug Stephens asks: “ How will brands succeed in becoming the default product choice for machine-initiated replenishment? And perhaps most importantly, how will marketers appeal to the emotional and often irrational side of consumer behavior, when the consumer is now a string of Bluetooth activated programming code?” At Adimo, we are constantly working to answer these questions.