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Speaking up: how voice technology could transform retail

Voice web image

Drapers explores the impact the rise of voice-operated digital assistants could have on fashion retail

A creeping invasion is making its way into our homes. Virtual assistants operated by spoken commands – simply “Alexa” in the case of Amazon’s artificial aide or “okay, Google” to awaken the tech behemoth’s Google Home – are becoming part of consumers’ daily lives. In fact, Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo Dot device was one of the retailer’s bestselling products during last November’s Black Friday shopping frenzy, and last month it launched the Echo Spot, which adds a screen to the virtual assistant. These digital helping hands can provide users with information, play music, call a cab and, increasingly, make purchases. But will conversational commerce work for fashion retailers?

A report from OC&C Strategy Consultants, released last month, suggests that by the year 2022, the amount of shopping made through voice-activated devices is expected to jump by 48%, delivering a spend of £3.5bn in the UK. It found that 10% of UK households owned a smart speaker as at December 2017, and predicted this will rise to 48% by 2022. Almost 16% of UK device owners have used them to make some sort of purchase, in comparison with a much larger 40% in the US.

“Voice technology taps into the move towards frictionless retailing and the need to make it easier and easier to purchase products, both in terms of the process and enabling customers to buy something exactly when they want it,” explains Will Hayllar, partner and global head of consumer goods at OC&C.

Emily Mace, head of SEO at marketing agency Oban International, agrees: “Having these kinds of assistants in the house is something we’re becoming more and more used to – we now shout questions across the room to a device, rather than manually typing them into a search engine.”

Max Amordeluso, EU lead evangelist, Amazon Alexa, agrees: “We are now in the age of voice interaction. It’s not only an advancement – it’s an opportunity. If you feel like you missed the other big steps – desktop, mobile, apps – voice is now. Customers are developing expectations that things will work with voice.”

Currently, the technology is most commonly used by customers to buy everyday staples that need replacing regularly, such as toothpaste or lightbulbs. Low-value grocery, electronic and homeware purchases are currently the most common categories purchased by voice, OC&C found, and 70% of purchases are made by consumers who know exactly what they want to buy.

Straight away we can see a use for voice within some basic routine interactions

Sean McKee, Schuh

However, there are opportunities for fashion retailers. The technology has been earmarked as an area for future development by Asos CEO Nick Beighton, who anticipates search functions evolving from visual to conversational.

Voice data

“There are a number of things that are interesting to us about voice,” agrees Sean McKee, director of ecommerce and customer experience at footwear specialist Schuh. “The first thing is that we can see large numbers of potential customers are already consuming the technology. We’re in the mass market, so whenever we see something lots of consumers are using, our ears prick up,” he says. “It feels intuitive. Straight away we can see a use for voice within some basic routine interactions, which are quite labour intensive for consumers on mobile and labour intensive for us, such as order tracking or stock questions.”

McKee adds that he envisions customers purchasing clothing and footwear via voice technology sooner rather than later, especially those shopping with a specific product in mind: “Our customers have often done their research and are searching in a very driven way – for black Old Skool Vans or Nike Air Force in white, for example. However, for those shoppers looking for inspiration it could be very complicated, so visual search might work better for those retailers with a larger assortment.”

A combination of voice technology and visual display could be where fashion excels, argues Hayllar: “We know that replenishment purchases work really well with voice technology, so it will work for more routine [fashion] purchases, such as underwear or school uniforms for kids. But we’re also seeing some devices [such as the Amazon Echo Spot] adding screens or playing around with cameras, so they are still voice activated, but also have a visual display. Users could describe a particular trend or ask to be shown the season’s best looks, although that’s a step away from where the technology is now.”

It can’t be treated as an isolated channel … There needs to be complete convergence

Bhavesh Unadkat, Capgemini

Around a quarter (24%) of shoppers surveyed in a 2018 report from consultancy Capgemini said they would currently prefer to use voice assistants over apps or physical stores, and that figure is predicted to rise to 40% in three years. However, Bhavesh Unadkat, principal consultant in retail customer engagement at Capgemini, stresses the technology must be part of an integrated journey if it is to have any value for consumers.

“It can’t be treated as an isolated channel,” he says. ”This isn’t about introducing technology that simply means customers can order a limited number of products by voice. There needs to be complete convergence – the journey could start with a customer saying, ‘show me the cheapest pair of 34-inch waist Diesel blue jeans’ and smart assistants responding, not just with which retailer has the product, but with which stores nearby have it in stock, if the item can be reserved and when it can be collected. Once the order has been made, the assistants need to talk to the retailer and let the customer know when the jeans are ready to collect.”

Unadkat adds that voice technology will also help consumers receive more tailored, personalised responses to their queries and product searches: “There’s a real opportunity for voice to use behavioural and contextual data to drive more relevant insight than search engines can currently with word searches. If you type something into Google, you get a million generic search results. Smart assistants should be capable of looking at your previous searches and order history to offer relevant products. Say, for example, I’m searching for child’s clothing. This assistant should know enough about me to know I have a toddler and show me products for that age group.”

Retailers are consistently warned against introducing technology for technology’s sake. But consumers are clearly already interested in voice search, and the technology appears to be set to become an increasingly important part of their everyday lives. As devices become more sophisticated, a combination of voice and visual display could be where conversational commerce flourishes for fashion. To succeed with voice search, retailers must think carefully about how and why their specific customers will use voice technology and how it can help improve their shopping experience.


Readers' comments (1)

  • It’s a technology that won’t transform fashion. Neither will it be a big impact any time soon. Or as a technology in its own right. I recall HoF was first to trial beacon technology. VR bigged up, by said same retailer soon after that. Enough said.

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