The Future Sound of Commerce

Voice search. Voice commerce. You still need to twizzle the trend dial a bit to hear it, but once you do, you’ll find a signal that’s more clear and loud by the month.
Discussions with leaders throughout the retailing world tell us that leading brands are tuning in. Management reviews are underway. Consultants hired. Tests and POCs unfolding.’s Brett Kinsella reported last month that the world’s marketers are also listening. Advertising Week’s recent week-long confab in New York featured eight voice-related presentations and panel discussions—up from two last year.

Still small, to be sure. But so was e-commerce not so long ago.

The question for all of us is not whether voice commerce will happen. Instead, it’s how big, how soon?

That’s the issue I recently discussed with the UK’s Luke Battye, the stop-and-make-you-think head of Sprint Valley, a division of Warwickshire’s CAB Studios. Luke and his team bring the latest decision science to retail and hospitality service design and delivery. It’s a unique—and from Luke’s results, highly valuable—perspective, and especially to the topic of the consumer adoption of voice for commerce.

Because the why, when, and rate of consumer adoption is one of the three critical variables that will drive—or stall—voice commerce.

And perhaps the least understood.

Let’s start with an over-arching hypothesis: Voice is poised to transform the way we interact and transact with all forms of digital devices (from smartphones and speakers to home appliances to automobiles), and across all industries.

At first glance, voice’s potential stems from ease of use. As Belinda Rowe wrote in a June 2018 Publicis Media report about the new “zero interface,” voice is “more natural than using a touchpad or keyboard, takes less brain power, and creates even more opportunity for tech to move further into the background.”


But issuing a voice command to Alexa and engaging in the purchase of complex product are two entirely different things. The issuing of commands might be termed “robotic Q&A.” Simple requests. Limited answers.

The second, much more difficult. Especially as the commerce discussion demands multiple rounds of clarification (“do you want the pale pink, periwinkle blue, or the light spring meadow green?”) to confirm the selection of a multi-attribute product.

Given that most current state human-to-machine interaction is closer to robotic Q&A than Google Duplex, most of today’s emerging voice-based commerce use cases are focused upon FMCG household replenishment—the re-ordering of previously-purchased or commodity items. As such, it’s limited to routine purchases—the simplest of the four major categories of buyer behavior (routine, impulse, limited decision-making, and extensive decision-making).

Even so, this is no small thing for retail. Four reasons.

First, it aims a new disruptive technology right at the FMCG industry. And, in doing so, creates another reason for the grocery and CPG industries to accelerate their move to unified commerce capabilities—including ship-from-store fulfilment.
Second, as Battye points out, voice-based replenishment brings with it significantly positive impact for consumer spending (but only for those who win the voice shopper). Consumers will move to on-demand ordering and fulfillment—and in doing so, lose sight of the basket total which has traditionally moderated spending behavior.

Every place and every moment is now “shoppable.” Transactions will happen as desires arise and payment is invisible.

Why ration the beer when you can just order more (and have it delivered to your front door)?

Read Luke’s thought-provoking article here:

Third, this will be not only about larger baskets, but increased (and long-term) share of wallet. Because voice (with a built-in automatic payment program) creates the best of consumer value propositions: Friction free and think for me.

You know what I’ve bought. You know what I want. With thirty seconds of instructions into my always-there-in-the-kitchen provider of music, weather, and traffic (not to mention jokes for the kids), I’ve saved two-to-three hours of time per week, not to mention the most of the toil of the standard in-the-trolley, out-of-the-trolley-onto-the-conveyor, back-in-the-trolley, out-of-the-trolley, in-the-trunk, out-of-the-trunk, in-the-kitchen, out-of-the-bags, into-the-fridge (deep sigh, and my back hurts) grocery shopping trip.

What’s not to like?

Fourth, this will be a boon for those with substantial and growing private brand programs. Think Amazon.

Studies to date show that voice shoppers rarely specify products by brand detail; instead, it’s a generic request, such as “big bag of dog food.” Given the margin differential, why would Amazon not suggest a trial-size bag of Amazon’s own Wag Dry Dog Food, instead of Purina’s finest?

However, what about the other three categories of buyer behavior? What about impulse buying, or shoppers using voice commerce to clarify and confirm more complex products?

What about the situation noted earlier—the selection of a silk blouse available in eight colors, including pale pink, periwinkle blue, or light spring meadow green? Long or short sleeves? V- or scoop-neck?

Will voice have value only for routine replenishment?

On the contrary, through Google Duplex (available to the public via Pixel* phones later this year), we can see the future of AI-enabled voice assistants. True bot-based conversation is around the corner.

But as we wait for that to fully unfold and such experience to become normative, voice is now being combined with other decision-making tools. Voice is now being added to smartphone-based apps, and vision is being added to smart speakers with screens (Amazon Echo Show* or Google’s family of devices, ranging from the new Google Home Hub* to smart voice-vision devices from JBL, Lenovo, and, soon, LG).

With these advances—a Phase II of voice commerce—the value proposition begins to expand. What Battye describes as the “calm computing” interface of voice is now combined with vision. There’s no need to physically input or manipulate data. No need to manage the intricacies.

Just voice it. Then see it. See it from a different angle. See it in another color. Say it.

Which, as you think about it, is a very proven and profitable business model. One created years ago by catalogs (Sears, R.I.P.). See the product. Call 1-800. Talk to an operator. Order. Receive. Rinse and repeat. Some 9.8 billion catalogs were mailed in the U.S. in 2016.

Now move from coated paper to apps on smartphones or smart devices at home. From a business perspective, grab the voicebot scalpel and cut out the call center cost and customer hassle. Browse with voice. And add high-def digital vision. See the product. Get the answers you need. Order at your leisure. Check shipments at your leisure. Receive and repeat.

Any surprise that Argos is in voice?

Here, voice is not as a unique channel, but omni-channel sandpaper and lubricating oil. It makes certain processes smooth. Friction-free.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about phases 3 and 4.

Let’s close with these thoughts from Battye:

In a world that prizes time and fetishizes frictionless commerce, voice takes a step closer to a 'think it-have it' world.

Brands that can use voice to systemically reduce customer effort will create advantage—because the path of least resistance is king.”

Listen carefully. It’s the sound of commerce.


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Jon Stine

About Jon Stine

Global Director Retail Sales at Intel. Jon Stine leads Intel’s global sales and strategy for the retail, hospitality, and consumer goods industry sectors. His CV includes leadership of North American retail consulting practice for Cisco Systems, and a prior stint at Intel, where he founded the company’s sales and marketing focus on the retail industry. His perspective on technology’s value in the industry has been shaped by advisory and project engagements in the United States, across the European Union, and in India, Australia, and the People’s Republic of China, and from 15 years of executive sales and marketing experience in the U.S. apparel industry, working with the nation’s leading department and specialty stores. At Intel, his current areas of research and engagement include the future of the store in this new digital age; how and where retailers turn data into competitive advantage; the role of technology within the new cross-channel shopper journey, and, the critical business and IT capabilities that industry success will demand going forward.