Voice assistants in stores: novelty or genius?

By clare stewart



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February 5, 2020 | 7 min read

2019 was declared the ‘year of voice’ by CES, the world’s biggest gathering place for new technology, and with an estimated one in five UK households now using smart speakers, it’s no surprise. From setting alarms and telling jokes to the weather forecast, it seems people are getting more and more used to giving instructions to machines in their own homes.

A man issues a voice command to his smartphone.

Whippet explores the world of voice assistants and find ways for marketers to make the most of this sector.

But voice isn’t being confined just to the domestic. More and more brands are adopting it as part of their channel mix and intriguingly, it’s also making its way into shops. From talking shelves to talking mirrors, order taking and navigation, we take a look at the different ways retailers are using voice in the in-store environment and ask whether it’s gimmicky – or great.

“Talk whisky to me”

SmartAisle™ is the world’s first voice-powered in-store shopping assistant, developed by The Mars Agency and trialled earlier this year in the USA’s BevMo! liquor stores. A stand-alone system, it consists of an Amazon Echo smart speaker, navigational LED lights and custom-made POS built into a merchandise display (which, for the trial was whisky). Once directed with the simple command ‘Alexa open SmartAisle’, the customer is guided through a series of simple questions about their whisky preferences, such as type and taste, before Alexa suggests a shortlist of three products, highlighted by shelf lights. While a similar trial in a one-off independent retailer the year before saw an impressive 20% YOY sales lift, the word on the street was that the BevMo! installation wasn’t so popular with customers, who said it didn’t stand out enough, it ‘wasn’t cool to talk to a shelf’, and they often knew what they were looking for anyway.

Our verdict:

Novelty. Great idea, but needs to be supported by strong POS and a big sense of theatre to disrupt enough to get noticed. And, as it’s not yet intuitive for customers to talk out loud to an inanimate object in public, it may take a while to change behaviour. SmartAisle™ seems suited to ‘scripted’ information or pre-determined choices, but for specialist categories in particular, there’s still nothing like a personal interaction with a knowledgeable, trained colleague.

“Want fries with that?”

It’s not just shops adopting voice in their physical environments. Recently announced is the news that McDonald’s is set to introduce voice recognition to its drive-throughs in the US. Having acquired the Silicon Valley company Apprente in 2019, it’s developing unique ‘sound-to-meaning’ technology which will be able to interpret complex orders as well as accents. It’s hoping to make the drive-through experience more efficient, more consistent and even more pleasurable since the voice assistant ‘never sounds tired, annoyed, unhappy or angry’. Early indications from customers from a trial in Chicago are positive, with one happy customer saying it blew him away and worked ‘perfectly’.

Our verdict:

Genius (with a caveat). Hot on the heels of touch screen, voice ordering seems an inevitable progression for the fast food industry. However, rather like self-service checkouts, there’ll always be the need for a human to step in and save the day when an order goes wrong. Try keeping the kids quiet in the back of the car as they argue whether they want large or small fries and the voice assistant gets confused…

“Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

The fashion world is also using voice recognition to enhance the in-store shopping experience. H&M’s giant smart mirror, trialled in the New York Times Square store communicates with customers via voice and facial recognition, allowing them to take selfies which are sent to their phones, and recommending outfits which take them straight to Others, like Calvin Klein, have installed Alexa devices in fitting rooms so that customers can alter the lighting and music to their own preferences.

Our verdict:

Novelty. A talking smart mirror placed bang in the centre of the store is certainly going to draw attention and create some theatre - it’s perfect for H&M’s social-media-hungry audience and seamlessly blends the on and offline shopping experience. Calvin Klein’s Alexa-in-fitting-rooms idea is so simple, it’s surprising more brands aren’t doing it. Both show innovative thinking in different ways, and are certainly PR-able but how much uptake in sales or brand loyalty comes as a result is debateable.

“Head to aisle six”

Lastly, we’ve got the daddy of voice recognition and owner of Alexa herself: Amazon. They’ve recently announced the launch of their new Amazon Echo Buds, and they’re not your average earphones, oh no. These ones have Alexa built in. That means you can take Alexa with you wherever you go – and that includes to the shops. Demonstrated using Wholefoods as an example (naturally), Echo Buds can take a customer looking for tomatoes and direct them exactly to the right aisle. Take it one stage further, and if you tell Alexa you’re making spaghetti bolognese, she may well be able to navigate you to pick up your whole shopping list.

Our verdict:

Genius. A pocket Alexa who knows what you’re cooking for dinner and can get you the ingredients you need in the quickest time possible? We want. While restricted only to Wholefoods initially, we can see it won’t be long before Amazon begins to allow other supermarket brands to use Alexa this way within their own apps.

So, what about colleagues in all of this? As we enter a new decade, are we heading towards a human-less shopping experience where interaction with people in stores becomes a thing of the past? While voice recognition does have the ability to make product selections more accurate with pin-pointy questions – and therefore make shopping more efficient, we hope the emotional engagement that comes from interacting with a real human being will surely win out.

Clare Stewart, head of copy at Whippet.


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