Is voice ordering the future of online grocery?

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Walmart
Picture: Walmart
Major retailers including Walmart and Amazon are extending into voice-assisted shopping through Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant smart home speakers, but is consumer interest in the area of voice ordering matching up with industry investment?

Smart speaker ownership has take off among US consumers. According to data by VoiceBot.ai, US consumers who said they owned a smart speaker rose by just over 40% in 2018 to 66.4 million people. The number of adults who said they own more than one smart speaker grew as well, from 34% in January 2018 to over 40% in January 2019. 

Despite increased sales of smart speakers, there are certain actions that users are more comfortable performing on their devices. Most (70%) report using their smart speakers to play music followed by asking for the weather forecast (64%), a consumer survey by Adobe Digital Insights found.

Shopping through a smart speaker or digital assistant was a less frequent activity among users (30%) and food delivery scored even lower at 17% of consumers. 

The same survey by VoiceBot.ai, found that under 1% of the general population (who may or may not own a smart speaker) said they would prefer to shop on a smart speaker.

'The experience isn't matching the consumer expectation'

Laura Heller, director of external communications at Chicago-based Performics​, believes that voice ordering will eventually catch on with consumers, but it'll take some time and trust building.

"I think there’s a comfort level issue, but there’s also a trust factor,"​ Heller told FoodNavigator-USA. 

 "When it comes specifically to voice, the experience isn’t matching the expectation, but there’s high interest, particularly in grocery. [Because] it’s a regular purchase, the frequency level is there, the need for convenience is there, and the interest by consumers is getting there."

Kathy Gersch, EVP at Kotter​, said that it's up to retailers and tech companies to provide the shopper with a seamless experience.

Voice ordering Walmart items through a Google Assistant, for example, requires an additional voice command ('Hey Google, talk to Walmart') compared to the single voice command when ordering through Amazon Alexa devices: 'Hey Alexa, order bananas'.

"Anything that's one more step creates an issue and you see customer drop off,"​ Gersch said. 

"The more seamless you make it for a consumer, the less likely they are to not abandon that [virtual shopping] cart and not make a purchase."

Common stumbling points for making grocery purchases online is inventory transparency. Shoppers' trust in voice ordering also suffers from a lack of visual confirmation of their purchase.

Research conducted by the Intent Lab, a research partnership between Performics and Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, found that consumers value visual information over text when shopping.

According to the research, 36% of respondents have performed or used visual search which is at the same rate as voice search. Additionally, 59% of respondents think visual information is more important than textual information across categories (vs. 41% who said text search is more important)."Certainly for the foreseeable future, the combination of the two -- voice and visual -- will be important. It’s really going to depend on the consumer, the need case, and the environment,"​ added Heller.

walmart assistant

Earlier this month, Walmart announced that it has partnered with Google Assistant to allow users to add items directly to their grocery cart on their home smart speaker device using the command, 'Hey Google, talk to Walmart​”.

The rise of 'conversational commerce'

Jerry Sheldon, a technology retail analyst at IHL Group, believes that the voice ordering or "conversational commerce"​ requires a cultural shift on the consumers' part where they relinquish some control over their grocery selection."It’s a comfort issue, it’s a critical mass issue, and it’s an education issue. I think people have to become more comfortable and aware that these technologies are available,"​ Sheldon said. Sheldon added that as consumers increasingly value their time and time spent on various errands, voice ordering groceries will begin to catch on.

"[With voice ordering] you’re getting into the economics of time and money,"​ he said.

"When you look at the balance of time and money, I think we as a society are showing that we really value our time -- We’re willing to spend more to guard and maximize the value of our time."

While the ratio of consumers using their smart home speakers to make a grocery order is low today, Sheldon expects user adoption to increase along with a continued interest and investment in this area from major retailers."This is the challenge, you have to invest, you have to have a strategy, and you have to have a commitment to the technology so that when the adoption curve slope does change, you can capitalize on it," ​he said. 

"I think people will progressively get more comfortable interacting with their devices, just as we’re comfortable making a purchase on Amazon.

When we’re having this conversation in five years, I think the slope of the adoption will have started to change," ​Sheldon said. 

Related topics: Food retail and e-commerce, People

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