As Retail Reopens, Voice Tech Takes Center Stage

Share this:

Voice technology has been on the verge of going mainstream for nearly a decade. Despite big players like Amazon and Google launching their own smart speakers, and millions of consumers using the devices in their homes, investors in the voice technology space have been patiently waiting for the spark that would set off a new touchless world.

That spark is Covid-19.

With every touch presenting an opportunity to spread the virus, consumers and businesses have been flocking to voice-first platforms. Sales of smart speakers grew 6% in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the year before, even as overall retail sales faltered and the economy shrank.

It isn’t just consumers purchasing smart speakers with their stimulus funds. Businesses, like doctor’s offices, restaurants, and supermarkets, are finding that their employees can more easily complete basic tasks, like setting timers and sending internal messages, using voice technology. When they complete these tasks without touching tablet screens or sharing pens and paper, those employees reduce the chances of the virus being transmitted within their offices or to their customers.

“As consumers resume normal buying routines, a new layer of sanitary awareness will become part of day-to-day activities, especially in the way we shop,” says Pete Alcock, head of product marketing at NMI. “Businesses that will succeed are the ones that are able to reduce the number of touchpoints between locating an item on the shelf and walking out the door with it.”

Many retailers have turned to digital kiosks and touchscreens in recent years to help shoppers find what they need, and these businesses are now looking at ways to make those same devices touchless. With customers hesitant to touch directory screens or ask sales associates for help, retailers are beginning to pivot to a voice-activated wayfinding experience.

Relying on Sound

Making that pivot means investing more extensively in the so-called “hearables” market. Products like AirPods, which allow shoppers to ask cloud-based voice services to find the items they’re looking for quickly, minimize the time shoppers spend in the store and interacting with shared surfaces where the virus could be hiding.

“If you examine Covid through the lens of our five senses, it has increased a consumer’s propensity to use voice and rely on sound — a hands-free user interface — while it has decreased the need to touch, especially communal items,” says Matt Maher, founder of M7 Innovations. “The adoption of ‘hearables’ accelerates this trend even more. Functions like ‘hands-free Siri’ through AirPods eliminates the need to take out a smartphone to acquire information or perform tasks.”

As the world slowly settles into its new normal, Maher believes that hearables are primed to absorb the voice behaviors that people have cultivated in their kitchens and living rooms and bring them to the physical world.

“If Covid has forced this rapid evolution of consumer behavior, voice is the perfect medium to align with the adapting actions we all are taking,” Maher says.

The U.S. supermarket chain Albertsons has already started moving in this direction, with expanded customer service offerings via voice and live chat. Shoppers now can purchase items online before picking them up in store, not only bypassing in-store lines, but also bypassing any keyboards or touchscreens during the ordering process. Walmart has enabled voice ordering for grocery pickup and delivery through Google Assistant, and Amazon has integrated Whole Foods ordering into its Alexa voice assistant.

Re-imagining Kiosks

Maher says that now is the time for retailers, as well as businesses in other industries, to start imagining how they will serve customers safely in a post-shutdown environment. Facing the dual threat of consumers avoiding sales staff and also wanting to get information about products without touching them, retailers are going to have to get creative.

“Voice provides a remedy for both behaviors,” Maher says. “Digital wayfinding via voice empowers consumers to navigate a store without having to talk to an employee or congregating at a map kiosk. If they need relevant information on a product they’re considering, a hands-free ask to their digital assistant can both provide information and push them further down the conversion funnel.”

One of the first changes we’re likely to see in digital kiosks is the addition of contactless payments. Enabling contactless payments on kiosks in grocery stores and airports will eliminate an additional point of contact with a touchscreen and let shoppers quickly tap their card or smartphones to complete a transaction. Parking garages are another place where existing payment kiosks are being reimagined. Rather than needing to leave their cars and carry around paper tickets, voice assistants could soon be accepting touchless payments via mobile devices.

“Incorporating contactless solutions into existing kiosks will eliminate the exchange of physical money or cards and human interaction while also giving consumers the convenience and cleanliness required post-pandemic,” Alcock says.

Challenging Roads Ahead

One of the obstacles that both brands and retailers will have to overcome to implement hands-free capabilities is being prepared to accurately match the user’s intent when people ask product-level questions via voice, regardless of the voice assistant software that’s being used.

“Smartphones will become the only touch screens that consumers will feel comfortable using, so retailers need to provide supplemental experiences,” Maher says.

If a kiosk or touchscreen is digital, can it communicate with a consumer’s smartphone via Bluetooth beacon and allow the user to navigate and control the experience with their own device? If it’s physical, will it be NFC-enabled, or will it have a QR code that can act as a trigger and push a digital experience so customers don’t have to congregate too closely at the kiosk? Will the touchscreen allow them to navigate the UI with voice as easily as with touch?

“[These] options require a huge time investment, thoughtful strategy, as well as high production and technical costs,” Maher says. “Voice is the only other alternative that provides a viable solution.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.