Report on Alexa-enabled devices puts spotlight on voice commerce

Not many people buy things using Amazon's Alexa-enabled devices, a new report contends. What does that say about voice commerce and how the enterprise uses voice computing technology?

Will voice commerce catch on? It hasn't yet, according to a new report by The Information, but experts said that won't slow the growth of voice computing.

According to the report, which cites two people briefed on Amazon's internal figures, only about 2% of the people who own Alexa-enabled devices -- mainly Amazon's Echo line of speakers -- have made a purchase with their voices so far in 2018. Of the people who did buy something using Alexa voice shopping, about 90% didn't try it again, the report states.

An Amazon spokesperson disputed the figures presented in The Information, but previous reports also conveyed less-than-stellar numbers when it comes to consumers using smart speaker devices for voice commerce. The Information's numbers also jibe with a report released last fall by technology consulting firm Activate that found the majority of smart speaker owners use their devices for relatively simple functions like playing music, getting the weather or setting alarms. In fact, shopping wasn't even on the list of things users said they do with their devices.

Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK ResearchZeus Kerravala

"I'm not surprised," said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research. "I think voice has a lot of potential; I just think there's a lot of trust issues around it right now. It's not dissimilar to what happened with online purchasing. A lot of people were cautious with that until they tried it a couple of times and they gained some confidence in it."

Julie Ask, principal analyst at ForresterJulie Ask

Beyond that, using voice alone to shop is simply not practical, said Julie Ask, principal analyst at Forrester.

"It's simply too hard [to purchase things via voice only] beyond replenishment of simple goods," Ask said. "There are easier ways to buy. It's hard to browse, you can't see images and you can't realistically listen to product descriptions -- and who would want to."

She added that although Amazon is number one in market share, retailers are wary of partnering with the company, which could also have played a role in the lackluster figures on shopping via Alexa-enabled devices.

Voice in the enterprise

Given all that, should the enterprise back off from pursuing voice computing? Not at all, said Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner. Just because "mom and pop" are not buying goods through Alexa-enabled devices today doesn't say much about the value of the voice AI category as a whole -- or about  consumer shopping habits going forward. Voice commerce will undoubtedly evolve, he said, and, in any case, people's current disinclination to use Alexa-enabled devices for shopping shouldn't dissuade CIOs from investing in voice computing.

Companies are definitely trying to reinvent brand experience and they're doing that with smart speakers and with multimodal voice interactions as well.
Werner Goertzresearch director, Gartner

Goertz said there will be an organic growth in e-commerce capabilities and usage, with the hospitality industry, restaurants and chain stores already developing proofs of concepts and use cases that incorporate different transactions using voice AI technology.

An example Goertz gave was Amazon partnering with Marriott International to start bringing Amazon Echo smart speakers into hotels as part of the tech giant's Alexa for Hospitality initiative. Hotel guests will be able to use the Alexa-enabled devices to order room service, call for more towels, order entertainment and more.

"Companies are definitely trying to reinvent brand experience and they're doing that with smart speakers and with multimodal voice interactions as well," Goertz said.

By multimodal voice interactions, Goertz means voice assistants with screens, like Amazon's Echo Show. He said these kinds of devices lend themselves better to functions like voice commerce -- and alleviate some of the issues with voice-only shopping raised by Forrester's Ask.

Gartner analyst Ranjit Atwal agreed that multimodal voice devices using voice, video, chat and screens will eventually allow for more frequent and complex purchases -- and a more integrated customer experience -- but admits there's still "a long way to go" for voice commerce.

As Kerravala said, "I think there will be a day when voice is the dominant interface ... we just need to take baby steps in getting there."

What's the takeaway for CIOs, according to Ask?

"CIOs should use [voice technology] and pilot it, but in scenarios that make sense -- easy information retrieval, control, et cetera," she said. "Don't stretch it beyond what it does easily."

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