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Friction, Competition and Consumerism: 3 Reasons Voice Commerce is Overrated

Brands are scrambling to enable voice commerce, but customers aren't buying it

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Kindra Cooper

Voice commerce

Despite effervescing hype around voice commerce, the nascent technology has inherent limitations that can stump its growth.

Still, given that 26 percent of US adults own a smart speaker, the potential audience reach of voice assistants is too tantalizing for brands to ignore. 

However, just two percent of people who own an Alexa device have used it to make a purchase, and only 39 percent of consumers say they trust the personalized suggestions from smart speakers. Most use it to restock low-stakes commodities like detergent or toilet paper, if at all. 

Here are three reasons why I don't think voice is going anywhere fast. 

1. No visual cues or product discovery

Browsing, searching and price-comparisons are a huge part of the shopping experience, except when it comes to low-cost, repeatable purchases. Consequently, just 0.4 percent of online sales originate in voice and just 36 percent of those who own a smart speaker say regularly they use their device to make purchases.

Products being shopped by voice are limited to certain categories: lower-value items bought as a one-time purchase. These include grocery (20 percent), entertainment (19 percent), electronics (17 percent) and clothing (8 percent), according to a new market research report by OC&C Strategy Consultants.

James Vlahos Talk To Me“I don’t think that the pure voice in a silo makes sense, other than reorders on commodity goods. It’s a classic problem where shopping is an information-dense experience...and voice doesn’t do that well,” James Vlahos, author of TALK TO ME: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think said at the VOICE Summit in Newark. 

Not all hope is lost, however. Multimodal voice shopping enables users to receive additional information about their voice searches on another device, such as a bluetooth-tethered smartphone. For instance, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines enables customers to browse and book flights through the Google Assistant. 

During the interaction, users automatically receive a list of current ticket prices on their smartphone so they can view fares in more detail. Secondly, rising adoption of smart speakers with screens could also drive up voice commerce, thanks in particular to the launch of Amazon's Echo Show 5, which at a price of $90, is the world's first affordable voice-activated smart display. 

2. Consumerism

Refuting the potential of voice based purely on anti-consumerist ideology sounds preachy, but voice commerce is part of an ongoing push from device manufacturers to turn IoT-enabled household appliances into additional points of purchase.

It’s certainly practical to reorder milk directly from your smart refrigerator, whether or not it’s voice-activated, but do you want every device in your home to be payment-enabled? For instance, the (surprisingly affordable) Amazon Alexa microwave is shopping-enabled, in case you run out of popcorn on movie night – provided your Amazon Echo is nearby. 

Read more: The Rise of On-Demand Luxury - Is Everyone In On It?

Meanwhile, Honda’s new ad-supported loyalty program, Dream Drive, has been criticized for fueling consumption excess. It's a voice-controlled, mixed reality application built into the car that uses location tracking data to render augmented scenarios where the cars, buildings, and objects around you turn into live elements. Users can “point” at buildings as they drive by and purchase items from associated businesses with a few clicks.

While you can specify individual user permissions, imagine how easy it would be for you (or your kids) to spend $100 in just a few minutes. Similarly, voice turns the shopping experience into a cursory one, where impulsive buys are easier to justify because a purchase is completed in a few words, rather than going through a series of landing pages to authorize payment on your debit card.

3. Only a few brands will win

Over time, big tech companies have rejiggered their algorithms such that discoverability on search engines like Google and social media sites like Instagram hinges largely on ad spend, rather than organically good content. Voice is too incipient to be monetized, so the playing field is more or less even – at least for now. 

“The reason that Amazon and Google have been tiptoeing pretty cautiously into commerce is nobody wants to alienate consumers too soon by intrusive ads, sponsored results – all these things which could be a turnoff when we’re in a place where we’re still deciding which ecosystem we like best,” said Vlahos. 

Read more: American Express on Why You Should Focus on Selling Value 

Both Amazon and Google support paid search products for their websites, but none yet in their voice assistants, and they’re clearly labeled as sponsored. With voice, how would we indicate if a product search is sponsored? What’s more, search results are limited in voice. 

Shilp Agarwal Blutag“If somebody is asking for recommendations, you cannot recite 15 different recommendations,” said Shilp Agarwal, co-founder and CEO Of Blutag. “You can scroll on a screen but [for voice] the real estate is not there.” 

If a voice assistant only recites the top three recommendations, would it be ethical if all three were sponsored? If that were the case, it would disincentivize other brands from appearing on the platform at all, and also erode consumer trust in the recommendations made by their voice assistants.

Currently, to find and purchase a product on voice, you essentially need to know exactly what you want, which brand you’re buying and the name of the product.

“It favors the already well-known or already-good,” said Vlahos. “If you’re not there and you’re trying to climb up, it’s harder to surface to the top if only the first [search] result is going to be heard.” 

Stuffing voice skills with keywords does not boost discoverability, the same way Google’s algorithms for web searches consider user intent and the contextual meaning of queries while repudiating sites that use guerilla SEO tactics.

What’s more, voice relies on natural language processing to recognize voice texture, interests and behavior, so web SEO strategy doesn’t necessarily translate to the realm of voice. Additionally, voice searches are more likely to contain question phrases and conversational words than web searches.