Retail · The Amazon Effect · Voice commerce

Sorry, Alexa: Voice shopping is still mostly hype

Voice-activated shopping—and Amazon’s anticipated dominance of the platform via Alexa-enabled devices—has been touted as one of the next big things in retail. In fact, a simple Google search with any combination of the relevant keywords reveals a large number of bold predictions about the revolutionary nature of the technology. Go ahead and give it a try. I’ll wait.

So, given the large number of pundits, publications and consultancies reveling in the future thrill of a world dominated by voice-driven shopping, should we believe the hype? Well, as it turns out, maybe not so much. At least not yet.

In a report released last week by The Information, it appears that only about 2% of Alexa owners have ever used the device for shopping. Even more startling is the finding that of those that had bought via voice, a mere 10% did so again. As you probably know, repeat purchase rates are often a good indication of customer delight and can provide valuable insight into future sales momentum. So, if true, this doesn’t bode well for rapid adoption.

To be fair, a study by Narvar suggests higher adoption rates and considerable customer interest. Amazon has also disputed the numbers in the report, responding that “millions of customers use Alexa to shop.” Of course, when you do the math, given the installed base of Alexa devices, that’s not definitive proof that purchase incidence is a whole lot greater than 2%. Whether the actual data reveals a considerably different picture or Amazon is simply obfuscating a disappointing outlook is anyone’s guess. And just because momentum might be relatively slow right now doesn’t mean the rate won’t pick up considerably as the technology improves and consumers become more familiar. But I’d be cautious. Here’s why.

First, there is an aspect of the technology that is solving a problem I’m guessing relatively few customers have. Shopping on Amazon (and most other sites) via a mobile device, laptop or desktop is pretty easy, fast and well optimized. At the margin, in some instances, Alexa can save a little time and solve an immediate need. But it’s not like it’s a step function in improved convenience.

Second, voice-activated commerce, at least as it’s currently delivered, can involve significant experiential comprises. While I have not seen specific data, my own personal and industry experience suggests that visual cues are central to many purchases, and the ability to see options—and navigate through them—is highly useful for many purchase occasions. In these situations “regular” online shopping is clearly superior.

Third, as Scott Galloway from New York University and L2 humorously illuminated, Alexa does not always present most of the available product options and, shockingly, might have a bit of a bias towards Amazon’s own private brands. While it would take a large study to really understand how prevalent this pattern is, it strikes me that voice-activated shopping can work quite well when you know exactly what you want and aren’t especially open to considering alternatives. In all the other situations (which might well be the vast majority), it’s far from clear it’s meeting consumers’ needs in a highly relevant, compelling and unbiased manner.

Fourth is the trust factor, which extends beyond voice-activated commerce in particular to the general adoption and use of Alexa and similar devices. Some of the things I’ve mentioned already speak to the trust of shoppers getting the experiential outcome they desire. The other aspect is whether some of the suspicions about how these devices invade privacy get adequately addressed over time. Stories like the one about a woman’s conversation being recorded by Alexa and then being sent to a random contact don’t exactly inspire confidence. Whether these concerns are all that profound and whether a significant number of customers remain cautious about using such devices remains to be seen. Certainly the technology will continue to evolve, if only because of Amazon and Google’s massive commitment to their adoption.

As I don’t possess a working crystal ball, I’m reluctant to predict that voice-activated commerce won’t someday be retail’s next big thing. Right now, however, it seems much more of a cool technology still in search of addressing a real customer need at scale.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.