As retail comes to terms with a future dedicated to personalisation, brands are increasingly looking at advances in technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and voice-commerce that will play a significant role in their long-term strategy.

Chatbots and interconnectivity between devices present an exciting opportunity for brands to progress their retail strategies at scale. But are consumers opting in for an age of convenience over choice? Automated recommendations instead of serendipity? Some fashion, beauty and food brands are already changing the shopping experience via chatbots, pointing to a new dawn for relevant retail dominated by robots. 

Voice-commerce has gone beyond the latest retail buzzword, to become a channel or platform for brands to engage in natural conversation with consumers. Research suggests the market is set to grow to be worth $40 billion in 2022, up from $2 billion in 2018, across the US and UK, according to consulting firm OC&C Strategy, that picks out Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and Samsung Bixby enabled devices as the top drivers for consumer behaviour change. Furthermore, a recent report by Juniper Research suggests these brands’ smart speakers will be installed in over 70 million US households by 2022, reaching over half (55%) of homes.

As the number of homes installing smart speakers grows, so are the number of consumers inclined to engage in voice shopping. According to research firm Navar almost a third (29%) of people who own devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home say they shop via voice, and 41% plan to in the future.

From bot to voice

Over the last couple of years, the development of ‘Conversational Commerce’ (as it was dubbed by Chris Messina, a user interface expert at Uber in 2016) has gathered speed, with everyone from Starbucks to ASOS joining in.

ASOS is trialling a chatbot stylist that can pivot between e-commerce and voice-led sales depending on whether it’s being used on a messenger service or a voice assistant, with both platforms utilising machine learning programming. In order to do this, the online fashion retailer has extended its Enki chatbot to Google Assistant after it debuted the service on Facebook Messenger. Customers in the UK and US can start a conversation with Enki using the phrase “Hey, Google, talk to ASOS” from the Google Assistant app as well as the Google Home smart speaker. The chatbot will then offer shopping suggestions such as browsing six of the top-selling menswear or womenswear looks from the ASOS website depending on product type preferences. The retailer says more items could be covered by the chatbot depending on feedback from users.

Google Home Mini

Brands that are not on board with their own chatbots for commerce or service will need to hurry up – consumers say they prefer to interact with bots when it comes to customer service. According to Twilio two-thirds of consumers now identify messaging apps as their preferred way to engage with brands — ranking it above phone, email, live chat and even face-to-face interactions.

Beauty brands in particular, have become quite adept at chatbots with the technology’s ability to integrate with augmented reality (AR) software already widely available on consumer devices.  Sephora, Estée Lauder and L’Oréal have all developed dedicated chatbot shopping platforms, with others – such as Coty – following suit and partnering with AR platform Modiface. 

The combination of beauty brands utilising AR technology that leverages virtual try-on capability with built-in voice-commerce via bots is a win-win for both brands and consumers. But it has been Amazon’s advancing interactive device the Echo Look that has pushed brands such as Estée Lauder to really innovate in personalised voice-activated commerce.  For example, Estée Lauder’s ‘Let’s Get Ready’ on-demand beauty programme combines voice and visual cues to offer users over 2,000 unique curated looks. The looks and ‘how to’ tutorials are based on a user’s individual characteristics, but also borrow heavily from the device’s ability to access extensive consumer insights, social listening and trend scanning. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the seamlessness that AI functionality allows will overcome the reservations consumers may have around the technology. 

As new devices become better integrated, the convenience-driven voice-commerce market looks set to flourish. For example take Starbucks’ Bixby skill that works on newer Samsung Galaxy devices in South Korea. The coffee brand’s voice-enabled ordering service is integrated with Bixby and enables end-to-end ordering and payment. The feature lets customers speak as if they were talking to a barista in-store, including individual preferences for a beverage. Bixby users who aren’t registered in the Starbucks Rewards loyalty program are prompted to first enrol and then place an order. This reflects how voice assistants are steadily evolving to include more commerce-driven engagements, including purchasing, advance ordering and campaign-driven coupons.

Humanised intelligence

The continued uptake of AI by brands for customer service through chatbots means we will be talking to more avatars and they will learn more about us, every time we choose to chat. Soon, it’s likely that every element of our shopping experiences, down to the problems we might have, will be done digitally or through AI.  The way in which brands are humanising these digital elements is being driven by investment in emotional intelligence (EI).

Although only a patent, facial expression technology is already popping up as proof of concept with retail purpose. Start-up, Soul Machines has developed AVA, a customer service bot capable of reading customers’ facial expressions and tone of voice, so it can respond to queries accordingly.

‘AI is there to augment our lifestyles – not replace humans,’ says Greg Cross of Soul Machines, talking at 2018’s IBM Think conference. ‘We have this view where in the future, these AI machines will learn to interact with us, and we can learn to trust them to engage with them in a different way, to help with automated tasks. We think their emotional intelligence capabilities will be very important for the way that humans interact with them in the future.’ There are huge opportunities for companies to use this type of augmented AI technology to democratise customer service. From payments at petrol stations to personalised banking advice, AIs that learn our preferences will allow more diverse interactions.

Soul Machines is now working with its first set of customers, including Autodesk and Royal Bank of Scotland, to create more tailored customer experiences. These ‘digital humans’ are described as a combination of emotional and artificial intelligence with brands eager to buy into their potential to handle a whole swathe of customer services. Crucially their appeal is that they’re going to learn more about customers each time they ‘meet’, creating the opportunity to deliver specialised knowledge and very powerful customer experiences.

The internet of everywhere

The extensive uptake of Internet of Things (IoT) devices is enabling brands to cross the line between public and private life, becoming increasingly intimate with their customers.

Amazon Echo Dot

By 2025, an average connected person anywhere in the world will interact with connected devices nearly 4,800 times per day – about one interaction every 18 seconds – up from an expected 601 in 2020 according to IDC/Seagate. One of the main reasons for this increase will be the big rise in consumer interest in IoT devices, particularly in the home.  In keeping with the increasing demand expected for smart speakers, IDC forecasts that worldwide spending on IoT products will reach £556bn ($772.5bn) in 2018, an increase of 14.6% on the expected £485.1bn ($674bn) in 2017.

These networks are giving brands greater access to consumers’ private lives than ever before. And that means people are using devices such as Amazon Echo as a sounding board, a list keeper, a provider of food and culture, an entertainer and an educator. 

Amazon is the major player in this field, followed by Google, but are we likely to see more tech companies jumping on the bandwagon? For instance, Siri can’t order items yet on Apple’s Homepod, neither can Samsung’s Bixby, but this could change soon as organisations start to realise there are gaps in the developing voice-commerce market. While Samsung was a relative late-comer to voice-enabled digital assistants in May 2017, the consumer electronics giant should not be discounted for its ability to play catch up and fast, considering its dominance in the smartphone market and IoT appliances. It’s a good example of how pivoting brands should be investing now to alleviate a potential shortage of skills programmers who hold the key to developing not only their voice-commerce market but also keeping up with future consumer shopping needs.

Agile brands that have a pro-AI mindset will be the ones developing voice-commerce and machine learning solutions for the next generation that view their relationship with AIs as facilitators to more frictionless lives. With more accepting attitudes to trading private information in return for relevant shopping opportunities, consumers will start to develop more meaningful relationships with brands. And that means investing in AIs that deliver on convenience through personalisation.

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