With Alexa Riding Shotgun, E-Commerce Just Hit the Open Road


When voice technology first appeared in Hondas in 2004, it seemed like a perfect fit for the technology. Drivers had a hands-free way to interact with the car to adjust the radio, make calls, and more. When Siri came around ten years later, natural language made the interactions even more intuitive and accessible to the masses. Drivers could now ask complex questions or commands without being distracted from the road.

In present day, smart speakers (or phones) from Amazon, Google, and Apple are pushing for consumers to use them to purchase goods. With Amazon recently announcing plans to release an Alexa-powered speaker specifically for cars, will consumers soon be shopping from busy highways?

The sweet spot, of course, is hospitality. There are many opportunities for drivers to ask for the nearest gas station, restaurant, or hotel. It is even possible that drivers will order fast food while driving and just swing by the express lane to pick it up – thereby shortening the entire process. However, shopping from the car for things such as groceries, electronics, or clothes will not be as simple.

Here is the problem: consumers cannot really shop by voice. They can easily submit orders, but that is not the same as shopping. Looking back at the emergence of e-commerce, the transition from physical stores to digital stores changed the process, but the act of shopping remained intact. Shopping involves browsing, comparing, and looking for the right deal. Those actions are severely limited when using only voice.

Of course, however, it works nicely for the simplest shopping experiences. “Alexa, buy the cheapest 12 roll of toilet paper.” But more than likely, the better usage is for replenishment, for example, asking Alexa to re-purchase the usual order of toilet paper. There is no shopping involved here – in the traditional sense. It is just replacing an order; the true shopping was previously accomplished, and that is still a great use of the technology.

Therefore, customers will not be completing all of their shopping in the car, but retailers know it is important to interact with customers where they spend their time – and the average American spends around 300 hours each year in a car. The traditional way to reach customers in cars, radio advertising, is losing its impact as more people stream commercial-free entertainment. So perhaps shopping is not the true objective. Instead, marketing may be the way for retailers to leverage voice technology in the car.

The real coup will be getting consumers to sign-up for targeted marketing in their cars, combining voice and geofencing. For instance, a customer drives by a DSW Shoe store and hears offers to entice them to stop or is reminded of an unused gift card, a product they have on their wish-list, or an upcoming event at the store.

Therefore, clearly there are some great use cases for putting smart speakers in cars, and retailers would be wise to watch this space carefully.

-By David Dorf, VP Infor Retail

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