Voice threatens foundations of physical stores

Apple HomePod joins voice revolution

Apple recently launched its HomePod smart speaker with much of its marketing effort based around the quality of the unit’s aural output but as we all know it is really all about its voice-driven capabilities.

Like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa the new Apple product is firmly pitched into the field of engagement by voice. People will engage with the device by voice rather than by text through a screen. The launch highlights how we are undergoing a gradual shift away from one type of conversation to a more natural format.

Whereas the screen provides a platform for a monologue the leap to voice takes us into the much richer realms of dialogue. This certainly sits well with social media, which is very much built on connected, real-time engagement/communication.

Further evidence of the move we are making to voice came from Mary Meeker, influential internet commentator and venture capital executive, who released her latest much anticipated state-of-the-nation annual report on the internet recently, which revealed that 20% of queries on mobile devices now involve voice and that the accuracy levels of these queries are now running at 95%.

This trend is rather worrying for stores-based retailers because one of the cornerstones of their bricks and mortar stores is the ability to use them to provide human interaction. This is certainly regarded as one of the advantages of physical outlets over online stores. If the pure-plays incorporate voice-enabled capabilities into their websites and apps then they are effectively humanising the experience and taking it a step closer to what would be delivered in-store.

It is interesting that Shop Direct has categorically stated that it does not intend to open any physical stores in contrast to a number of other pure-plays such as Missguided and Made.com that are adding bricks and mortar to give them a multi-channel capability.

At the same time Shop Direct has been at the forefront of investing in text-based chatbots and using artificial intelligence to converse with its customers in a humanised way through clever technology. It is only a question of time before the company moves these to voice-based interactions. Maybe the company’s early sighting of success in this area is one element behind its reluctance to add stores.

The early initiatives with these automated engagements at Shop Direct have been through its brands that appeal more to a younger audience who have been more receptive to such interactions. The same will undoubtedly be the case when it kick-starts voice-based engagements.

This will be somewhat ironic because younger people typically run a mile rather than have a phone conversation. They have a massive preference for text-based communications rather than voice. Maybe they will be much more comfortable with voice-enabled technology (underpinned by AI) because it is not delivered in a chatty format but is very much text-based in style.

The computer-driven voice conversations will be much more agreeable to the younger grouping as they have a desire to get to the point rather than meander off into conversing about the weather and whether they have had a nice day.

Against this backdrop retailers need to start playing around with voice-based solutions – including ensuring their apps are voice-enabled. This is most acutely important for those with stores because otherwise they could find themselves under even more pressure from the pure-plays.

This online-only group is absolutely on the case of voice technology as it likely recognises that its adoption will close the gap between the online and in-store experience and in doing so it will gnaw away at one of the main advantages of physical stores.

Guy Chiswick, Managing Director, Webloyalty Northern Europe (@Webloyalty_Guy)