The voice revolution

Voice search, voice shopping and conversational commerce are just a few of the terms that you've probably heard about in the past year. They represent a change that is going to completely alter the way we interact with electronic equipment. From the very first personal computers up to today's smartphones, you have always needed a keyboard, mouse or touchscreen to operate it. But that is going to change quickly. Voice will increasingly supplant the current user interface.

You can already hear people saying things like "Alexa, order me a pizza pepperoni!" or "OK Google, dim the lights" in many American homes.  With Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana, all the major players have now put digital assistants on the market.  In the US, 45 million Smart Speakers with integrated digital assistants were sold in three years, and 18 million in the last quarter of 2017. One in six households now have one or more speakers and 43% of millennials said they had made one or more purchases with a digital assistant last year.

Here in the Netherlands, this voice revolution has pretty much passed us by in recent years. This is mostly because the main players in this area - Google's Assistant and Amazon's Alexa - are not yet available in Dutch.  However, if all goes well, both will be on the market in the Netherlands this year.

Voice-based interaction can be subdivided into two categories: voice search and interactive conversations. Voice search is nothing more than searching for products or services through a search engine by using your voice instead of typing in keywords.  In interaction conversations, you ask a digital assistant a question, and the assistant then gives an answer. These digital assistants are integrated in the smart speakers mentioned earlier, but they can also be integrated into companies' own apps. 

The question now, of course, is how you, the retailer, can best respond to this trend towards speech-driven interaction. For voice search, it's important that you review your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy. Instead of optimizing your website for specific keywords, you will now have to focus more on search terms in question form.

This question is somewhat more difficult for digital assistants. In any case, for these assistants you are dependent on one of the major parties in the market. Choosing an assistant depends on many different aspects, the most important of which, of course, is whether the target group has access to them.

Google Assistant is incorporated in the latest version of Android, which also makes it the most used. However, the Google Home Smart Speakers have a much smaller market share than that of market leader Amazon's Echo. Yet although Amazon is the market leader and makes it very easy to integrate the Alexa assistant into your own app, the question is whether Amazon is always the right partner for you. If you ask Alexa to order a product, there still remains the question of who will deliver it. Of course, as a retailer, Amazon remains a major competitor.

Siri is only available on Apple devices such as the iPhone and the newly introduced Homepod smart speaker, and it currently has quite a lot of trouble with voice recognition. Neither is Spotify available, for example. In addition, a large-scale international study conducted by Cap Gemini shows that 40% of consumers will use a voice assistant as an alternative to a website or app within three years' time. So it won't make sense for all retailers to integrate the assistant into their own app or website.

In short, there is no standard, fit-all solution for digital assistants that will work for all retailers. However, the consumer's acceptance of the technology is moving very fast so it's important to respond to this in the short term.