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Last month Apple announced that updates to its popular Siri personal voice assistant are set to begin this fall. Smarter and more powerful than just a year ago, Siri can interact with many more apps. She has expanded her breadth of languages, and can research sports scores and stats, check movie times, find restaurants and make reservations thanks to greater domain knowledge.

The new “Eyes Free” feature that allows drivers to access Siri with the tap of a button on steering wheels created some noise, too — especially since automakers including Audi, BMW, General Motors and Honda have already signed up to support and offer it.

A few days later Android’s Robin made her debut. A natural-language, voice-activated navigator, Robin focuses mainly on driving-related tasks. She can proactively warn a driver about impending traffic or speed traps, help to locate parking and, as a result of learning a driver’s schedule and habits, provide relevant navigation information. Her knowledge stems from integration with Yelp, Twitter and other databases.

That all sounds great, but what, if anything, about voice technology is relevant to retail?

A game-changer
When you consider that Amazon allows consumers to search for products using voice — and that customers are becoming more accustomed to using voice control, thanks to Siri — it will be hard to slow the pace of innovation. For retail CIOs, that’s a sign that it’s time to figure out how this technology will become a core piece of how your company does business.

“I’m absolutely convinced that voice will play a role in the future of shopping, particularly as it relates to search,” says Lori Schafer, executive advisor for retail at SAS. “Amazon and Google set the bar and they’re already using voice ... As the technology continues to rapidly improve and consumers become more accustomed to using voice recognition, they’re going to expect it to be more available.

“The first retailer that gets out of the gate with a voice control shopping app is going to set a precedent ... there’s no doubt in my mind that it will take root and completely change mobile search.”

David Dorf, senior director of technology strategy at Oracle Retail, believes there is much potential for Siri as the program matures. “Apple has a patent called ‘Intelligent Automated Assistant’ which includes descriptions of shopping by voice,” he says. “It’s likely Apple will start by offering digital content ... via Siri in the iPhone’s iTunes store, then it may transition to physical products.

“This could be potentially game-changing if/when Apple releases their TV,” Dorf says. “The rumors are that the forthcoming Apple TV will use Siri, and being able to order products as they appear in shows has great potential.”

Not everyone is convinced that voice will make a lot of noise in retail. “I find it to be limited in value,” says Sucharita Mulpuru, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “There’s an element of surprise and delight that seems to come along with Siri, but ... I’m still not seeing any hard data that indicates that people are satisfied with voice.”

“The device has to wait for me to talk,” she says. “Then I have to wait for it to respond. I’d rather be able to multi-task in search of information — type and read — than to wait for a response that may not be exactly what I need. Voice technology is fundamentally linear and what will kill it is our impatience.”

Call center applications
Other experts insist that voice technology will extend beyond mobile shopping apps. Recall IBM’s Watson and its stint in the spotlight as a contender on “Jeopardy”: Watson has a deep knowledge base accessible via natural language queries.

Chris Hendren, enterprise strategy and transformation leader, retail industry for IBM, believes voice will make inroads in retail company call centers. “We’re looking to apply voice technologies to monitor the call center,” he says, “and I’m not just referring to the content of the calls. What we’re focusing on is understanding nuance.

“You can say, ‘Thanks for that great service,’ yet the tone of your voice along with the previous content of the conversation may indicate that you’re conveying a completely different message,” Hendren says. “We’re working to better understand those nuances of conversation and language so we can determine sentiment and what the speaker really intended.”

This type of advanced analytics is being applied at some call centers run by IBM. “The goal is to improve the level of service,” Hendren says. “We’re looking at what they report as a result of conversations, and we’re measuring that against what we’re finding when we evaluate the conversation logs to determine success and resolution.

“There is a tremendous amount of value that retailers can be getting out of the call center that is virtually untapped right now,” he says. “We’re looking at what’s going on in the marketplace and [how] the role of the CMO is changing, and we’re convinced this can play an important role in how they protect and build the brand.”

Search and recommendations
Schafer envisions retail apps that provide voice-controlled interaction. “Imagine a shopper arriving at a Walmart in search of a toy,” she says. “As soon as she’s in the store she opens the retailer’s app or m-commerce site and says, ‘Tell me in what aisle I can find Legos.’ Then, she walks over and finds that the set she wanted is sold out. She says, ‘Out of stock,’ and the retailer’s app responds, ‘The nearest Walmart is 3.8 miles away. Would you like to go there, have it shipped to your home or have to shipped to your favorite store?’

“We’re seeing the very early stages of this already, so the scenario is not far-fetched,” Schafer says.

Jon Stine considers voice technology to be “an extremely powerful delivery mechanism.” Stine, director of the retail and consumer products practice at Cisco IBSG, sees an opportunity for retailers to provide more “personalization and contextualization for shoppers who are increasingly bewildered by the complexity of offerings.”

He looks forward to the role voice could play as a recommendation engine, seeing it as a tool to assist a shopper in narrowing choice. “We’ve done some research surrounding decision architectures and ways to lead decision makers to make better choices,” Stine says, and “see an opportunity for retailers to use voice to simplify complexity, and ... move shoppers to the path of purchase more quickly.

“The value here is more about the deep analysis that Watson provides,” he says. “Siri is the delivery mechanism. When you think about the relationships that retailers want with shoppers and what the customer desires, you arrive at interaction and assurance, personalization and contextualization — all things that can be supported with voice technology.”

Does widespread adoption of voice technology have a long road ahead? Yes, but there’s one more thing industry watchers can count on: The technology we have today is not the technology we will have tomorrow.

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