As Amazon introduces more chat-enabled products, what’s the future of voice technology in retail?

Amazon’s march to embed Alexa into every home continues. Earlier this fall, the company announced a wave of chat-enabled products that not only enhance what chat can do, but also bring together several features.

Take the AmazonBasics Microwave — with a $60 price. When paired with an Echo device, voice commands turn the microwave on and adjust time and power levels based on what the user says is inside. The microwave and Alexa integrate with Amazon Dash, offering automatic microwave popcorn replenishment.

“Amazon wants to be the dominant voice platform,” says Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst for retail commerce at eMarketer. “It’s about the ubiquity of devices. When we think about this new slate of products, the microwave is a warning shot to appliance manufacturers: ‘You should think about integrating with Alexa, otherwise you might find us competing with you.’ It’s a way to speed up adoption. The medium of sound is not the best way to do it. But it acclimates much more consistent behavior. Places where voice has been traditionally strong, for more commodity type of goods, we see that as accelerating.”

The microwave certainly has received the most attention of the 13 new devices Amazon introduced. Some are upgrades to existing ideas — such as adding a standalone camera to its Ring product line, which Amazon acquired earlier this year. Others take Amazon and chat into a whole new arena — such as the car.

And that, Lipsman believes, is a “green field.”

“That’s totally fertile ground if you think about it for voice and consider how much time people spend in the car.”

No need to succeed

With the sheer number of new products — announced in one fell swoop — Amazon is setting the industry on notice. “What Amazon has been so brilliant at is being able to leverage its core strengths around innovation investments,” says Scott Webb, president of digital services and solutions provider Avionos.

“It’s able to spend a lot on some loss leaders to test the model and then to rapidly apply that to the dominant pattern that emerges. The fact that it’s coming out with this many devices illustrates its willingness to make a lot of bets. If one or two pay off, they’ve rapidly gone through the innovation cycle that allows it to eliminate the ones that aren’t going to scale. Few firms are able to put that much breadth into the market at once and have the resources to be completely comfortable if the majority fail.”

The new devices are part of a bigger picture of Amazon and how it sees the customer relationship, Webb says. “With the Ring acquisition and different home delivery models, what you see emerging is a pattern where Amazon is really reaching deeper and deeper into the consumer experience.”

Using voice to order products online — simple replenishments aside — could take longer to become reality. In the not-too-distant future, Alexa and her competitors might be a valuable tool in beginning the shopping process.

Ultimately, this experimentation might be more about getting consumers comfortable with the idea than ensuring all the new products are market winners, Lipsman says.

“What do people use their smart speakers for? ‘Set a timer.’ ‘Play this song.’ Simple commands,” he says. “That will translate well with the microwave. But one of the key values of the microwave is you use it habitually, if not daily, multiple times per week. The quicker consumers become comfortable with the habit, the sooner they will start to engage in more complex voice transactions.”

Changing home interaction

One of the smaller products — for $25 — is a smart plug. Others are already in this area, but Amazon’s entry expands the use of voice. Imagine having Alexa turn the coffee pot on first thing in the morning. Or using the Alexa via a car’s device to connect with the iron at home to ensure that it was indeed turned off.

But using voice to order products online — simple replenishments aside — could take longer to become reality, Lipsman believes. “It is always problematic to order something without the benefit of a screen to compare products. The medium of sound is not the best way to do it, but it acclimates much more consistent behavior. Places where voice has been traditionally strong, for more commodity type of goods, we see that as accelerating.”

He notes that iPhones did not immediately drive users to the mobile web. “It was super slow. I didn’t want to wait a minute for a page to come up. Once we switched to 4G, it changed everything. There’s likely to be a similar inflection point with voice. The more places, the more touchpoints where people are interacting with it, it’s going to get better. It’s going to hit a point where consumers can expect that Alexa will get the job done the first time.”

In the not-too-distant future, Alexa and its competitors might be a valuable tool in beginning the shopping process. “As the language gets better, you may be able to have a conversation about a product that you want,” Lipsman says. “You might ask Alexa to show you speaker options under $100 where you can articulate constraints. Maybe Alexa can provide some options back for you. The shopping that exists today includes filters for the types of products that you want, but maybe you can do it more seamlessly through voice.”

And that drives the need for retailers to reconsider the relationship with Amazon, Webb says. “When we look at Amazon, we often think of them as a retailer. Now, for many of my retail clients, Amazon is a really significant technology partner. The amazing thing about the Amazon model is, of all the interactions they’re creating, they drive more profit from the parts of their business that don’t sell directly to the consumers. Web services and the hosting business really drives the majority of the profit. A ‘co-option’ is taking place here. I might compete with sales on Amazon, but with Amazon as a tech partner, it enhances the customer experience.”

While the timing might be uncertain — Lipsman quotes Bill Gates’ adage about overestimating the adoption in the next two years but underestimating the next decade — one thing is clear: Voice will change things.

“This is something retailers have to have a very comprehensive strategy around how they’re going to deal with Amazon,” Webb says. “Voice generally is transitive technology. It is moving us toward very innovative and different interface models. Voice has its limitations. It’s hard to conceptualize large amounts of data through voice. But it is complementary and transitions us to what will become more dominant, which are different input devices, integrated virtual reality and expression-based interfaces. The independent parts of those technologies already exist. What we’re moving toward is the combination of those into fully realized experiences. Voice will lead us there, but I don’t think we’ll see a voice-driven commerce. What we’ll see is an immersive experience, and voice is a part of that.”

And for that, one day we might just be able to thank the microwave.

Sandy Smith grew up working in her family’s grocery store, where the only handheld was a pricemarker with labels.