Voice Assistants Are Big this Holiday Season (But Still Annoying to Shop With)

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Credit: Illustration by Ad Age

Ask Alexa to buy some Nike shoes, and she might try to hawk you a pair of Nike men's Revolution running shoes for $59.99. She'll spout off product details, then ask, "Would you like to buy it?"

But say you're actually looking for women's shoes, as was the case in one Ad Age trial. We tell her that. But she really wants you to buy those men's Nikes, though.

"Would you like to buy it?" she prods again, ignoring your more specific request.

It's been a big year for voice assistants. But the cylinders still serve up a pretty primitive experience when it comes to shopping. Though voice-activated speakers have already proven to be a hot product to purchase this season, they're not likely to be too helpful with holiday shopping this year.

A new study, out today from SAP Hybris — which surveyed 1,000 U.S. consumers who own in-home assistants — found that 17 percent of smart assistant owners used their devices for holiday shopping last year. This year, 38 percent said they would consider using their assistants for holiday shopping. The top reason for using an in-home assistant to purchase gifts is convenience, the survey found.

But though the devices are rapidly proliferating, some consumers remain flummoxed by them. Twenty percent of those surveyed said they can't determine visual product quality using their devices, and 19 percent said they require too much guidance to shop. Others had trust issues: 27 percent of shoppers said they wouldn't use their in-home assistant for holiday shopping because of a lack of trust. And only 28 percent felt their devices understand them well enough to recommend gift ideas.

Experts say voice-powered digital assistants still represent new technology that will require both advancement in machine learning and other aspects of devices, as well as consumers learning how to use the devices, before shopping can really take off.

Clunky conversation
Dentsu Aegis Network-owned agency 360i has a new Atlanta-based Voice Lab, which recently conducted research on voice assistants by asking the devices over 3,000 retail-related questions and commands. Some were information-related (What's a good pair of hiking boots?) and some showed purchase intent (Buy a pair of Timberland boots).

Michael Dobbs, 360i's VP of SEO who oversees the Voice Lab, says both Alexa and Google-powered devices currently have poor experiences when trying to do something like buying a pair of Timberland boots.

"With Alexa, it seems to be a one-off answer a lot of the time. Here's an option from this seller at 'x' price, whereas Google would say, 'Kohl's has Timberland boots, size 11, at this price, as well as this other retailer and this retailer," Dobbs says. "Both feel kind of clunky and not very conversational at that point to allow you to filter down to pull the trigger."

The back-and-forth flow that would make sense when buying something, like "What other colors is this available in?" or "Do you have this in my size?" still aren't the norm for voice assistants.

"I think the big thing is they've got to fix the dialogue flow," he says. Until that becomes more natural, consumers likely won't be able to get the level of detail they'd need to feel comfortable in buying something.

E-commerce market research company Slice Intelligence's principal analyst Ken Cassar agrees the artificial intelligence that powers the speakers still just isn't there yet.

"We hear about all of the money that Silicon Valley-based companies are investing in artificial intelligence in order to make machines interact with us as effectively as people — but the reality falls far short of that … The reality is that when we're talking to our Echo, it is a relatively dumb device," he says.

"The interaction is effective when when the things you're asking are extraordinarily simple: 'Play the Madeleine Peyroux station on Pandora' — it's almost Boolean. We're almost executing search terms. Whenever you're trying to get conversational, it all kind of falls apart."

He says the devices fail to provide the kind of help you'd get from an in-store associate.

"If you were talking to a person, they would know to say, 'OK, so are you talking about men's or women's? Boots or slippers? What size do you wear? Do you have a particular retailer you'd like to buy from?'"

Peter Cahill, co-founder and CEO of Voysis, a voice AI platform, also makes the point that saying the wrong word might mean not being able to find what you're looking for when conducting a voice search, so context needs to improve on the devices. For example, when looking for furniture, a customer might search for "old style" or "something that looks kind of old." A voice assistant should be able to help a customer find something even if that store calls that style "vintage," otherwise, the customer would have a hard time finding a product that fits that bill.

What will make it better?
360i's Dobbs, who says this will be the year of testing and learning for voice shopping, said a few things are necessary to make the shopping experience better on voice. "The innovation of products that help visual become a big component to the conversation, machine learning that's improving dialogue flow, and then just overall user behavior in adapting to this whole world" will help, he says.

Part of that consumer behavior will change as more consumers get used to adding items to a list via voice instead of jotting them down on a note on the fridge, and as more consumers use voice to order more paper towels or garbage bags. Digital consultancy Rain's VP of emerging experiences Greg Hedges says the ordering of replenishable household items will be a "gateway drug" for many voice users.

"Once they see how easy that is, it will be thinking about some of the other maybe larger purchases they're willing to make," Hedges says.

He also points to an increasingly complex purchase journey that might make voice a simple last step, instead of needing to ask a barrage of questions and receiving details all via voice.

"The consumer journey is so multi-faceted at this point — people aren't just walking into the store and walking out with an item," he says. "The journey starts on a website or a phone and then you're doing this due diligence or gathering data" via a variety of methods before buying something, Hedges says.

Slice analyst Cassar says this year shopping via voice will remain an "at the margins" sort of behavior at least for this year.

"In years past and this year as well, the biggest contribution that voice-powered speakers are going to make to commerce is in the money that people spend buying them," he says. "It'll creep into more habitual behavior over the course of this year, over the course of next year, but it's going to be slow, because it's different."

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