Is voice technology set to become a core purchasing tool?

By Will Gillingham

In August 2018, it was reported by The Information that only 2% of Alexa owners have ever used the voice-controlled devices for shopping. On the ecommerce side of things, this horse isn’t just flagging halfway around the racecourse; it’s barely made it out of the starting gate.

Yet that’s not to say the technology hasn’t been a success; more than 50 million Alexa-enabled devices have been sold to date. In thousands of households, Alexa devices are resting on counters and coffee tables, playing morning playlists and reporting the weather. It’s not a case of tumbleweeds: ecommerce-enabled voice technology is ready and waiting to be used in kitchens and lounges across the globe. It’s just not being used.

So, why not? What is it about voice search that isn’t quite sticking with customers? Will there ever be a time when purchasing with your voice is the norm? And what can retailers do to encourage this commerce channel? We approached our community of industry experts for their insight.

The problems with voice technology

There are three major obstacles which voice technology has to surpass in order for shopping with voice to be an attractive prospect. Let’s outline them.

The bane of voice technology? Voice itself

Arguably the most persistent of the issues surrounding voice tech is this first one: people have yet to heartily adopt voice search into their lives. It’s still very much an amusing gimmick; a party trick.

This is highlighted by Jean-Yves Simon, VP Product of AB Tasty, who discusses the concept of social codes. He says: ‘There’s this sense of ‘the norm’ and social codes. Many people think they sound silly talking to inanimate objects: this isn’t written into our social norms yet.’

Further to the social coding of voice is its limitation on what we’re currently used to during a purchase journey. This is described by Ruble Joseph, Expert – Advanced Analytics, eClerx Digital Services: ‘The direct use and impact of voice technology independently for end shopping / purchase conversion will take time to be prevalent across the board, because humans still would want to take a look at images or videos of the product before purchasing, unless it is a regularly purchased item.’

And this brings us onto the second problem with voice technology: it doesn’t work for one-off payments.

Amazon Echo

The one-off purchase

Browsing. Comparing. Flitting between dozens of tabs before making a final decision. These are (for now) inextricable aspects of online shopping which voice-commerce would remove – a notion which is all but unthinkable to the contemporary buyer.

As Rob Marsden, Head of SEO, Search Laboratory, shows, voice shopping eliminates the safety net granted by being able to see the product you’re buying.

Marsden: ‘Compared to buying a product in-store, ordering online poses various risks to the consumer. These risks can be reduced: buying from well-known brands, reading reviews and watching tutorials all lessen the likelihood that the item you receive is completely different to the one you thought you were buying. Using voice technology to make purchases eliminates these safety procedures, particularly if carried out on devices without screens.’

Andrew Fowkes, Head of Retail Centre of Excellence, SAS UK & Ireland, shows how SAS research has thrown to light the limitation of voice tech in this capacity. He says: ‘Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of shoppers say they think carefully about purchases and spend time finding the best deal. Voice-activated shopping isn’t ideally suited to that level of research – it works best for the last-step, ‘buy now’ function, re-ordering tried-and-tested purchases. That means its value to retailers is in customer retention more than acquisition – making sure they find it easy and convenient to keep buying your product.’

While we’ll get onto the topic of recurring purchases a little further down, for now let’s dive into the final obstacle facing voice-commerce: privacy.

Credit card


Staying private when purchasing by voice is an issue which has yet to be overcome.

This is best explained by Quitterie d’Avout, Innovation Marketing Manager, Ingenico Labs, who states that privacy is one of the great anchors preventing voice technology from taking off.

D’Avout: ‘Despite the obvious benefits [of voice tech to recurring purchases], privacy concerns have held consumers back from this becoming a mainstream tool just yet. Voice activated devices are entering our everyday lives, and as such, they are becoming hubs for personal information, storing contacts, payment information, and other sensitive details. Consumers want to be heard but not overheard – and they need to know that their information is safe.’

Privacy concerns. The inability to browse. The fact that people simply aren’t comfortable speaking to technology. It goes without saying that there are some hefty barriers to surmount before shopping with voice becomes anywhere close to normative.

However, there are two ways voice-shopping could surge in the near future. Namely, retailer optimisation and the aforementioned recurring payment.


The ways voice-shopping could succeed

The recurring payment

There are items in our lives which don’t require much thought, if any. The thinking behind the Amazon Dash is the same thinking which could give a boost to voice shopping. Toothpaste, washing tablets, kitchen roll: if recurring payments for these items were programmed into a voice-enabled device so that you could order more with a two-second sentence, perhaps people would.

This is noted by d’Avout of Ingenico: ‘Although voice commerce is not suited for promoting products based on visuals when it comes to the home speaker, for recurring purchases like groceries or homeware, it could well be the answer. By giving busy consumers the option to complete an otherwise mundane task while on the go or in tandem with another chore, it not only saves customers time, but enables a seamless shopping experience.

Indeed, for items which don’t need to be researched or even viewed before a purchase, voice shopping could be an excellent asset in the search for the streamlined purchasing journey. But what about those items which do need to be researched?

Retailer optimisation

The current issues with voice shopping don’t only come from the customer. Quite simply, retailers have yet to attempt to optimise for voice shopping. If retailers were to optimise in this area, then perhaps there would be an uplift in the amount of people using the technology to purchase things.

John Raap, Chief Partner and Strategy Officer, Attraqt, mentions that analysis Attraqt has conducted demonstrates that retailers aren’t prepared for voice search.

Raap: Many ecommerce retailers are as yet unprepared to cater to on-site customer voice searches for mobile and desktop because they aren’t promoting or even offering voice-enabled on-site search experiences or assistants. This can therefore act as a blocker for consumers to use their voices as a core purchasing method in these instances. However, for those brands who take time to optimise the process by applying voice enabled search experiences to the desktop and mobile versions of their websites, it can yield interesting results.

‘One prominent retailer in our group who did this noticed that voice search was being utilised by shoppers when shoppers couldn’t find what they wanted using the traditional onsite ‘search bar’ method. This has enabled this retailer to better tailor the voice search and ‘classic’ search process on their mobile and desktop sites so that it can generate conversions and turn queries into results.’

Frédéric Clément, CMO, Lengow, agrees with this idea, again referencing the route to the solution lies in retail optimisation. He says: ‘Voice commerce is not yet suitable for the mass market. But a retailer who knows how to correctly optimise the product search for voice search and integrate the language assistant into the customer journey will not only adapt to potential new customers but can even expect an increase in sales. After all, 45 percent of language assistant users share a positive experience with friends and family.’

The need for optimisation is all well and good. But how exactly can retailers refine their offerings to facilitate voice search? One key way is in how customers are searching.

Google Home

How retailers can optimise for voice search

There is a categorical difference in typing to search and speaking to search, and this comes in the form of fully formed sentences.

Data provided by Raap of Attraqt helps to explain this: We analysed 30 million search queries across desktop and mobile websites from some of the most well-known online shopping retailers and brands in the UK in January 2019. What we discovered for these retailers is that only 2.3% of all search requests received by them contained more than 4 words and 0.1% contained more than 10 words, indicating that few people were making long-tail, conversational searches using their voices in these examples. In this instance, this suggests that using voice search to explore and navigate for products onsite isn’t yet an in-built behaviour for consumers when they land on the ecommerce sites of these popular stores, when browsing on desktop and mobile.

People speak in grammatically correct sentences (more or less), which isn’t how search tools are made to work. A refinement needs to be made by retailers to process these more long-form types of query.

Darren Ralphs, Content Manager of LiveArea, explains: ‘It’s time for brands and retailers to optimise for search engines. Be careful – it’s unlikely that pages not ranking for the usual factors (quality content, links etc) will be found by voice search, so make sure your SEO foundation is strong. Once this is in place, search bots tend to source data for voice queries from similar sources to featured snippets – those knowledge cards, local suggestions and “People Also Ask” boxes at the top of results pages. Just think, these snippets provide short, authoritative answers, which is how we need to start thinking in terms of voice optimisation.

‘Voice bots love pages with questions and answers, so start thinking about those FAQs pages, or drop some key questions on product pages. Think natural language -- voice queries average at least seven words, whereas text searches average just three.

‘So, if someone’s looking to buy through voice search, they’re not saying, ‘cheap bike London’ (as you might on text search), but, ‘where’s the best value place near me to buy a bike?’ An over-simplified example perhaps, but this is how to think in terms of voice.’

So, it’s not a redundant technology. It certainly requires an investment from both customers and retailers, but if a thorough adoption were to occur then perhaps, just perhaps, shopping with voice could begin to become a natural part of everyday life.


In summary

Voice-enabled devices are already commonplace household features, so the initial obstacle (that of having enough interest around the technology to begin with) has already been overcome. The issues arise around using these devices for shopping.

In that regard, there are three significant obstacles which need to be overcome: becoming familiar with speaking to voice technology, using the devices for one-off purchases, and the lack of privacy. There is a real chance that these will never be reached: after all, people are comfortable with buying products online, where they can see what they’re buying and compare prices and styles.

There are steps that can be taken to facilitate voice-commerce, however, which requires an effort to accommodate the practice from both the retailer and the customer. If voice commerce was optimised to the extent that it presented a more efficient, easy-to-use channel by which to buy items, particularly those household necessaries, then perhaps it truly will take off.

For now, that 2% adoption mark is unlikely to improve. But if the future brings significant optimisation for voice-commerce, who’s to say it won’t change?

Will Gillingham, Content Executive, IMRG

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