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The days of tapping or typing to shop might well be numbered.

Experts peering into the future and looking for the next big thing are seeing the advent of the Age of Voice Commerce.

Chatty digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant have already made basic purchases — for paper towels or laundry detergent — a no-fuss proposition. But it is voice tech’s second act that will shape its future beyond grocery store shelves.

And this new chapter has already started to unfold.

“When it comes to voice, we are farther along than many think. In many ways, it feels like we are nearing the point in the mobile boom right before the levees burst, and we witnessed the flooding of apps into the market,” said Colin Morris, director at Adobe Analytics, who pointed to how the tech has been evolving and gaining traction.

According to a study by Voicebot.ai earlier this year, 47.3 million U.S. adults have access to a smart speaker, and recent Consumer Technology Association numbers show that approximately one in eight Americans have bought a smart speaker or given one as a gift. And they’re not collecting dust. An Adobe report on voice technology last month showed that as much as 71 percent of smart speaker owners use the gadgets at least daily.

Smart speakers could become even more prevalent as holiday gift giving gets under way and new features come online.

“Like with mobile, use cases are critical in driving daily habits,” Morris said. “And with the interest we see in the upcoming holiday season, where we see 23 percent of non-smart speaker owners planning to buy one, it creates a bigger base of consumers trying the technology out.”

And as more consumers connect to speakers, more uses will be developed and the technology will evolve.

“We are beginning to see consumers use voice to do everything from initiating shopping to conducting deeper research,” he said. “And not only that, brands are beginning to see this medium as a way to expand their value proposition beyond existing offerings.”

Some of those features come in the form of editorial advice, like Hearst’s curated beauty tips, and new services, like voice interactions that connect consumers to human seller stylists at Poshmark.

The next step could — perhaps even should — take the voice phenomenon deeper into the retail experience with styling and recommendations.

Amazon’s latest Alexa-powered Echo, in light gray.  Courtesy Photo

Talking Shop

“When the Banana Republic [Alexa] Skill knows more about me and can suggest what I might like, that’s when I think we can buy more of these complicated goods on these platforms,” said Ben Arnold, senior director of trends and innovation at the Consumer Technology Association.

Personalized product recommendations are the holy grail for modern retailers. Platforms like True Fit and others have sprung up, eager to power recommendations for e-commerce sites and apps. Retailers and their partners are already collecting customer data and crunching insights. Pushing those efforts to Echo or Google Home seems like another step on the same path.

Brands and retailers haven’t connected those dots yet — but Amazon has. The e-commerce giant, which makes fashion the focus of devices like the Echo Look selfie camera, also offers buying suggestions based on Alexa searches and past shopping behaviors.

Apparel companies and others are taking more of a wait-and-see approach. The reaction is similar to retail’s initial hesitation to embrace e-commerce and smartphone apps.

But it’s worth remembering that this kind of reluctance opened the door for Amazon to ascend in the first place. The question now is whether history will repeat itself.

The signs are starting to emerge. According to CTA’s 2018 Voice Shopping Report, the meteoric rise of voice-controlled smart speakers show no signs of stopping. After being on the market for only three years, the devices are estimated to hit 39.2 million units sold in the U.S. this year, a 44 percent increase over 2017. And for 2019, the group predicts another 13 percent growth.

So far, people tend to use smart speakers to initiate music streaming, control smart homes or get information like weather forecasts, news and traffic reports. Shopping hasn’t yet hit the top features list. But it’s making headway.

Although some reports contend that only 2 percent of people with Alexa gadgets use them to buy products — a figure that Amazon strongly denies — CTA predicts that one in four online adults in the U.S. will likely shop by voice next year. That sets up what could be an important early shift in consumer behavior.

Apple’s HomePod  Courtesy Photo

“Non-Emotional” Shopping

As time goes on, voice interfaces are looking less like a fad and more like a foundational technology.

Both Amazon and Google, the leaders in this space, have expanded their own range of voice-activated electronics, as well as partnered with third-party hardware manufacturers.

The array of smart speakers is clearly growing, as are the voice assistants powering them. Consumers can choose between Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana and Bixby, among others. And across the board, the capabilities are impressive.

While older versions of speech recognition forced users to learn a rigid lexicon of commands, today’s tools can grasp “normal” language, making them more convenient.

“The way I see voice and connected objects is in helping us saving time,” said Lucie Buisson, vice president of product at ContentSquare, a user experience platform that analyzes consumer behavior on web sites and apps using artificial intelligence. The firm counts Walmart, Tiffany & Co., Rebecca Minkoff and Avon, among others, as clients.

Still, there are limitations. In Buisson’s view, current versions tend to work best for “non-emotional” products.

Some people may be comfortable buying dish soap sight unseen. Shoes, clothing, jewelry and other items that hinge on design are another matter. For such products, the images are crucial. According to a 2017 eMarketer report, 72 percent of online shoppers in the U.S. regularly or always search for visuals before buying.

Enter the display-equipped talkative tech.

Google’s Home Hub in white features a display and built-in cloth stand.  Courtesy Photo

Assistants on Display

One of the major trends in smart speakers now is pairing them with a screen. It’s the convenience of voice, but packaged with the power of images.

Amazon has the first-mover advantage, debuting the Echo Show last year. But now, as the company promotes its second-generation version, Google’s trying to close the gap. The search giant partnered with hardware manufacturers to bring its Google Assistant to products like the JBL Link View and Lenovo Smart Display. Most recently, it launched the Google Home Hub, a compact device with a seven-inch display.

Now, even Facebook has gotten into the act with Portal, a video calling gadget imbued with Alexa powers. Facebook and Amazon may seem like strange bedfellows, but their partnership tells the tale of fierce tech rivalries.

The alliances tend to fall along competitive lines. Google dabbles in shopping, not only with Google Express but through retail partnerships with some of Amazon’s biggest adversaries, such as Walmart and Target. Meanwhile, Amazon’s e-commerce site basically functions as a massive search engine for products.

There’s also no love lost between Facebook and Google, which have gone head to head on social networking and online advertising. So naturally, when it came time to choose a voice platform, Facebook went with Amazon over Google.

That seems to be part of a pattern. Seemingly recognizing that it can’t succeed alone, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft also forged a partnership with the neighboring tech company to bring their voice assistants to both of their smart speakers. But it’s not clear if adding Alexa to the Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke can actually save the product. The company just slashed the price of the $200 unit to $50. 

Microsoft’s Harman Kardon Invoke  Chris McPherson

This landscape matters, certainly for consumers trying to parse this battleground of ecosystems all vying for their attention. Where smartphone users have two main choices, iPhone or Android, smart speaker owners’ options are becoming legion across Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung, the “still in it for now” Microsoft and a budding array of other operators.

But as Siri, Bixby and Cortana jockey for a place in the market, when it comes to shopping — and indeed, the smart speaker market in general — Alexa and Google Assistant are the talkative techs to beat.

As shopping finds its voice, the differences between these systems may become more pronounced — especially as the tech reaches further into the home, integrates more with mobiles and ventures into other areas, like the connected car.

What will set one platform apart from another will hinge on a number of factors, not least of which are product selection, ease of use and consistency across homes, phones, wearables and cars. No one wants a disjointed experience.

In that sense, it’s like the tech sector’s version of omnichannel retail.

Samsung's new voice-assisted speaker, the Galaxy Home, is displayed during a product event, in New York. The Galaxy Home uses Samsung's homegrown digital assistant, BixbySamsungs Next Phone, New York, USA - 09 Aug 2018

Samsung’s new voice-assisted speaker, the Galaxy Home uses Samsung’s digital assistant, Bixby.  Nick Jesdanun/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Privacy Matters

ContentSquare’s Buisson said the technology will be most useful once it achieves a certain level of sophistication.

She looks to examples like the 2013 film “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson as an AI assistant programmed with a human personality. Her character, “Samantha,” knows Phoenix’s “Theodore” so well, it can anticipate his needs at every turn.

“Today, we are very far from it, as the technology is not mature enough and also because people tend to protect a little bit, their privacy and data — something which is very strong in Europe,” she said.

Privacy is a loaded issue, especially these days. There’s a creep factor that goes with placing connected microphones and cameras all over the house. The fact that they’re managed by a technology sector in the throes of privacy and data security scandals doesn’t help.

Facebook’s Portal announcement seemed poorly timed, considering its bad press over data breaches. Amazon had its own p.r. nightmare over the summer, when an Echo speaker pulled the equivalent of a smart speaker “butt dial.” The device surreptitiously recorded a clip and sent it to one of the owner’s contacts, because it mistook some chatter for the trigger word “Alexa” and some sending instructions.

Google’s no stranger to this sort of scrutiny either. The company closed down its Google Plus social network after it inadvertently exposed user data. No surprise that it would ditch the camera altogether for its new Home Hub. And all of its Google Home products feature a switch that either disables or mutes the microphone when not in use.

Notably, Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook blasted the tech sector for its handling of user information at a data privacy conference in Brussels last month. The ceo believes the info is being “weaponized” and called tech companies that trade user information as the “data industrial complex.” The searing critique, a thinly veiled jab at competitors Google and Facebook, included a call for stricter privacy laws, as Europe enacted just months ago.

Perhaps more than any particular features, it may be privacy worries that have held smart speakers back the most. But while the experts believe it’s a challenge, most don’t see it as insurmountable. And it certainly won’t thwart the inevitable.

“As we look ahead, the integration of voice technology into everything from cars to microwaves means that the touch points will only continue to expand,” Adobe’s Morris said. “And just like we saw entire industries like transportation develop on smartphones, voice holds the same potential as consumers find different and diverse uses for the technology.”

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