Comment: Move over touch – it’s time to make our voices heard says James Pepper

2nd August 2017

James Pepper

Only 15 years ago our interaction with the internet would have been through technology that was tethered to a desk, with mobility achieved through the use of a laptop. A major evolution came in 2007 when the Apple iPhone gave birth to touch (although this technology had been around in some form since the 1970s) and started our love affair with tapping and swiping screens. The arrival of the iPad cemented this fundamental shift away from the desk to mobile.

It wasn’t just the fact that technology changed, but also the way in which we used it. Out went the traditional qwerty keyboard and in came the touch screen. Toddlers and teens will never remember a time before touch screens.

Now, however, the world is leaving fingertip control behind, taking advantage of technology that has again been around for some time and requires your voice to make it work.

Voice recognition technology combined with artificial intelligence (AI), is now so effective that users can replace the key strokes, touches and swipes we have been so familiar with.

Any instruction, request or command that you would have typed into a search engine can now be spoken. Intelligent, voice-activated systems can search for items and complete purchases without physical contact.

This technology – known as voice commerce – will revolutionise the way in which we use the internet and buy goods and services online. It will recognise the device owner’s voice, understanding the request, searching for the right product and completing the purchase without hiccup.

Throughout retail, voice commerce is a hot technology. In the US, eight million of Amazon’s voice-activated Echo devices were bought in 2016 and it is estimated that more than 60m Americans will use a virtual assistant at least once a month this year. Microsoft’s voice service, Cortana now has 133m monthly users.

As smartphone sales level off, voice-activated searching via Apple AirPods, Android mobile apps, Google Voice and Cortana is taking off. Users are steadily becoming accustomed to voice services as a constant presence in their lives for everything from playing music, to ordering cabs and buying groceries.

In the UK, where uptake has been slower, 37 per cent of smartphone users nonetheless use voice-led technology of some kind at least once a month, with nearly one in five buying a product through voice without looking online first.

Voice commerce holds out the promise of serious gains for retailers because it is so easy to make a purchase. Amazon claims that Echo owners spend 10 per cent more in the six months after they bought the device than before.

Although the dominance of tech giants may seem unassailable, new opportunities will nonetheless open up for all retailers prepared to embrace voice commerce. It enables a retailer for instance, to prepare food and drink orders for families using voice-activation in cars while stuck in traffic. The retailer gets the business and the family saves time.

The move towards voice commerce promises substantial change and the opening up of new opportunities right across retail, providing us as customers with an easy, interactive channel covering purchase, payment, loyalty, service-functions and order-tracking. Implementing this however, will require expertise.

Retail operators lacking sufficient scale to create their own voice-led platforms, for example, may have to reach agreement so they can board those created by larger companies. Equally, the smartphone apps used by store chains will have to achieve compatibility with voice-activation systems.

As voice commerce becomes an ever stronger force in the way we shop, retail companies of all sizes will have to adapt, constantly appraising new developments and increasing the skills of their teams so that they are not lost in the crowd. This is a technology that already has good reason to shout about its future.

James Pepper is technical services director at Vista Retail Support