Speak up: How voice recognition technology is changing retail

 —  Article by Laura Agadoni
Woman speaking into mobile phone
Image credit: Shutterstock

Voice recognition technology may still be in the novelty stages, but as more people are getting used to talking to their devices, retailers have started paying attention.

Right now it’s being used for ordering groceries, pizza or coffee. For consumers there’s no driving to stores, logging onto a computer, or pulling out smartphones to open an app. They simply say what they want to one of the new voice activated devices coming onto the market from the likes of Google and Amazon.

“Voice activated retail technology is one of those pieces of technology that will become more and more mainstream. It provides a new way for retailers to communicate and participate in the shopping experience,” says Arielle Einhorn, Senior Research Analyst at JLL. “This is the next step in convenience.”

Voice recognition technology is the next iteration of online shopping as consumers increasingly prize ways to complete chores or get the information they need easily and quickly.

“It’s in its infancy now but already early adopters are embracing the new technology,” says Einhorn. “Even if they’re not shopping, some people are waking up in the morning and asking a device the weather or their schedule for the day. In the coming years, more people will get used to asking for things as opposed to getting on their browser and typing in something or going to an app to make an order.”

Research from PR firm Walker Sands shows that almost one in five U.S. consumers has made a purchase using a voice-controlled device in the past year – and a further 33 percent plan to do so in the next year.

Starting small

One of the most obvious uses for voice recognition technology in the retail sector is fulfilling orders consumers have already made in the past. “Let’s say you’ve already placed an online order for your grocery staples with a store that’s connected to your device. All you’d need to do to reorder would be to ask your device to resend the last delivery,” says Einhorn. “This technology allows you to tap into your history.”

Indeed, it’s food retailers who have been the first to try out the new tech. Domino’s Pizza has its own virtual ordering assistant named Dom. Tell Dom you need a pizza through the Dominos app on your smartphone, and he might quip back, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Starbucks provides a similar experience for customers who download the Starbucks mobile app. Customers speak with My Starbucks barista on their phone or device just as if they were speaking with an in-store barista.

Other forward –looking companies are also getting involved. LG Electronics, for example, recently unveiled a web-connected fridge fitted with Alexa technology to allow people to order groceries as they figure out what they need. Meanwhile, car giant Ford has an in-car Alexa application enabling drivers to order products, ask questions or search for restaurants.

The next evolution

A big question is whether voice recognition technology can work for all retail. What about fashion? Consumers can’t very well order a “black dress,” for example, and get exactly what they want.

Although using voice recognition technology to shop for fashion may not be easy to imagine now, Einhorn envisions a way this technology can improve the experience for shoppers in retail stores. “Say a shopper is in a department store. If that shopper has a question, they can ask a voice-activated device. This can make for a new type of customer experience and a new type of customer relationship with the store itself. It will make the experience easier and more efficient for shoppers,” says Einhorn.

While older generations may take a bit more convincing, voice-activated technology is a way for retailers to connect with the tech savvy younger market. But like with any new technology, there will be a learning curve and probably some trial-and-error to figure out what works. “Just as online ordering has become prevalent, it’s likely that using voice recognition technology for ordering will too,” Einhorn concludes. “It’s just a matter of time.”

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