Guest Column | February 10, 2020

Meet These 3 Expectations To Combat Reluctance Toward Voice Assistants

By Scott T. Reese, Harbor Retail


According to a survey conducted by eMarketer and Bizrate Insights, 58 percent of internet users have no interest in using smart speakers to shop. Those of us in the retail industry aren’t necessarily surprised by their lack of enthusiasm for this new technology. 

After all, voice activation has some well-known glitches. Case in point: Although Google Assistant performed admirably in accuracy tests, it’s hardly perfect. Perficient’s 2019 “Digital Personal Assistants” accuracy study showed that voice assistant proficiency overall is dropping. Depending upon the type of device used and the information requested, some digital assistants could barely answer one out of two questions correctly.

Another problem inherent to smart assistants is that they don’t always understand commands or questions, causing increasing levels of frustration. Things like poor voice recognition and background noise make your wishes misunderstood. Beyond being annoying, it’s potentially embarrassing, notably in a retail store.

The Experience Comes Up Short

Shopping by voice isn’t as simple as asking Alexa to cue up some ’90s grunge or requesting tomorrow’s weather report. Voice assistants are created to respond to simple commands — they’re not always good at handling complex inquiries. Shoppers tend to want to know information beyond price or sizing. Smart assistants will probably become better at navigating all these variables, but they aren’t there yet.

Plus, the shopping experience mainly consists of being able to see and feel the product. The “Voice Shopping Consumer Adoption Report 2018” determined that just over 62 percent of shoppers want an in-person retail experience. Except for well-known brands and products, users don’t necessarily want to converse with their screenless smart speakers about the attributes of objects. Instead, they want to pick those products up — or at least see them from a 360-degree perspective.

Without being able to touch or even view items, users become less inclined to use their AI-enabled pals to browse apparel, footwear, housewares, toys, and gifts. Heck, people are even reluctant to place food orders through their smart speakers. If they’re unwilling to trust Siri to order a burger-and-fries combo, they’re definitely not going to jump at the chance to buy an expensive dress they’ve only heard about from Alexa’s halting descriptions.

Making Voice Activation Work In-Store

Voice activation hasn’t quite reached mainstream adoption in retail realms, but we shouldn’t give up yet. Smart assistants can be influential and helpful in retail settings — but only when they meet the following expectations to fuel a harmonic retail experience.

1. The virtual shopping provides a welcoming, enhancing atmosphere. Voice technology should be a personalized, warm, give-and-take exchange, not a utilitarian, transactional one. By 2021, 38 million Americans will use a smart speaker to shop, but they won’t make it a habit unless the experience feels fun and effortless.

Leverage controlled, safe voice interaction to give buyers and browsers a feeling of gratification through gamification. Also, use offline voice toolkits to avoid the connectivity issues seen at CES. By making AI voice activation more fun, shoppers can further engage with merchandise and perhaps earn rewards for taking certain behaviors. Plus, a well-written AI voice assistant that uses machine learning can adapt to each buyer’s behaviors and anticipate future needs in a nonthreatening way.

2. The technology works effortlessly every time. A big issue with smart voice assistants is that they seem to be losing precision. Perficient’s accuracy testing found that major personal assistant technologies are lacking. Between 2017 and 2019, none of them improved the percentage of questions fully and accurately answered. Instead, they seemed to get less precise.

Live demos have failed because of poor internet connection quality at CES. This is a challenge all retailers will face when it comes to voice activation. Use a well-scripted, well-tested customer journey with voice included — test, test, test.

Dependability appears to be waning at a time consumers need it most. Clunky technology costs companies $98 billion in unrealized sales. Bad experiences tend to bring down the chances of repeat business, limiting future revenue. Therefore, retailers should put any voice assistant retail choices through the paces before going live.

3. AI engages customers without forcing them to do extra work. Despite the downsides, voice assistants have a built-in advantage over virtual or augmented reality: They’re often already installed on devices. It’s notoriously tough to get people to download a new app on their phones while they are in the store. Shoppers don’t have to take that step to use AI voice search, which automatically lowers the barriers to usage.

In fact, consumers are pretty comfortable treating their smartphones like companions. A PwC report shows 65 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 49 use voice-enabled assistants daily. By leveraging their natural comfort level, retail stores can give them the option of using voice activation without making waves.

If you’re a retailer, you don’t have to bypass voice activation. It’s worth experimenting with the technology to augment shoppers’ experiences. Just be prepared to test, test, and test some more before instigating a full-blown launch of AI-enabled speech recognition shopping choices. 

Odds are, you’re going to hit the right note sooner or later. You just have to iterate and tinker patiently to find the perfect way to integrate smart assistants into the buying journey.

About EmberSec

Scott T. Reese is a passionate leader, a “what’s next” enthusiast, and an arbiter of progress — with the detail-oriented, get-it-done attitude needed to make sure those big ideas are actually accomplished. Scott is currently serving as chief technology officer at Harbor Retail, where he helps bring Harmonic Retail™ to life with intuitive Self-Healing Technology™.