How Voice Technology will Change How We Grocery Shop

Bob's Your Uncle

“Hey Alexa, what’s for dinner?” will likely become a common phrase in households across the country in the next few years as more and more Canadians adopt voice technology in the home. According to eMarketer, 20 percent of Canadian internet users will own a smart speaker by the end of 2019. That’s nearly six million devices including Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and Sonos One.

Then there are smartphones, laptops, tablets, wearables, in-car voice tech and smart-home devices; all capable of acting upon spoken demands, wishes and preferences. Voice technology offers opportunities for mass and grocery retailers to radically change how we grocery shop and maximise profits as a result.

Canada’s changing retail landscape

Canada’s retail landscape is already changing. For example, consumers are developing a taste for convenient commerce. They’re doing a little more digital shopping on Easy Street, and slightly less in-store shopping on Main Street.

Statistics portal Statista recently charted the number of digital shoppers in Canada: 19.5 million in 2013 to an estimated 22.5 million in 2018. When it comes to buying groceries, Canadian consumers haven’t embraced digital shopping with quite the same enthusiasm. In the United Kingdom, online grocery sales are at 7.5 percent. France is at just over 5.5 percent. Canada hovers at about the 2 to 3 percent mark.

As publicity campaigns start to have an effect, and the benefits of convenient online shopping begin to sink in, that percentage will increase. What can voice technology offer the consumer to accelerate that growth?

Almost instant replenishment

As it stands, smartphones, tablets and laptops give shoppers the crucial information they require to make a purchase, including price and what something actually looks like. As voice technology further develops and provides these sorts of details, more and more shoppers will use it to make a product selection.

Right now, product replenishment, rather than product selection, is where voice-shopping can set itself apart. Meeting the predictable needs of consumers, who are creatures of habit when it comes to buying FMCG and CPG brands, could represent one of the biggest changes in the way we grocery shop.

How product replenishment could work with voice technology

Here’s how it might work. Once a digital assistant knows the household staples a customer always buys e.g. toilet paper, cat food, or toothpaste, then replacing those items becomes effortless. Instead of logging onto a device and typing in a replacement request, a word or two in the direction of a smart speaker could do the job. Just saying the words “cat food” without mentioning brand, volume, or a fussy feline’s preferred flavour, could be all that’s required to place an order. The same goes for “toilet paper”, “toothpaste”, “soap”, “laundry detergent”. Need those things? Just say the word.

Another scenario might see a digital assistant take the initiative. For example, it might suggest that, based on the date of the last purchase, toilet paper supplies might be running critically low and it could be a good time to replenish this essential product. There’s no crisis quite as big as a toilet paper shortage, and really smart retailers could use voice technology to their advantage in these situations.

Curated convenience

Easy replenishment ties in neatly with Canada’s growing preference for more convenient shopping. Ask grocery shoppers what convenience means and they will probably respond in these ways:

Not having to battle traffic or look for a car park at a busy mall.

  • Delivery to my door.
  • I can shop when I want to.
  • I can shop around for the best price without physically having to go into each store.
  • Hands free ordering while I am doing something else e.g. driving.

Voice shopping will allow for all those things. But it can also make shopping a more personal experience, by curating recommendations and search results tailored to the specific needs of each consumer.

For example, while shopping for a dinner party, someone can tell their digital assistant about the dietary requirements of each guest e.g. gluten free, meat free, dairy free, fun free. The assistant will come back with suggested items to suit individual requirements and these can automatically be added to the online shopping cart, ready for delivery.

Young people at a dinner party.

As we look at how voice technology will change the way we grocery shop, the introduction of a personal shopping assistant will become a real selling point for retailers, and for the technology itself. After all, everyone loves personal customer service.

Reviews and recommendations

Online shoppers are often asked for their opinions on what they’ve bought. These reviews are valued highly by retailers, and just as highly by other shoppers who rely on this sort of feedback when making purchasing decisions.

Many people don’t leave reviews because they find it too time consuming to type them up. This means prospective shoppers miss out on informative feedback, and products that are genuinely worthy of good reviews don’t get the headlines they deserve. As a result, they don’t sell as well as manufacturers and retailers would like.

Voice shopping could change all that. Instead of typing out a review, consumers of a grocery product could simply say what they think in response to a question from their digital assistant. For example:

Digital Assistant: “What did you think of that pasta sauce you bought last Tuesday? How many stars?”

Customer: “Five stars. Tasted homemade. Rich and authentic. Better than Mama’s. But don’t tell her. Let’s keep this conversation strictly between ourselves.”

A review that takes seconds. Feedback that informs millions. Not just shoppers, but also manufacturers and retailers in the grocery sector.

Shopping in the moment

We know when using voice technology, customers like to add items to their cart one at a time over a few days – not complete their shopping for the week all at once.

– Tom Ward, Walmart U.S. senior vice president of digital operations

Tom Ward was quoted as Walmart U.S. announced a partnership with Google that will allow shoppers to add items to their virtual grocery cart by speaking to their Google Assistant. Ward’s comments about adding items one at a time over a period of days points to another big change in our grocery shopping habits.

Lady driving car while giving voice directions to her car.

A lot of this has to do with voice technology allowing consumers to “shop in the moment”. For example, a motorist spills coffee all over her new trousers while driving to work. Using hands-free in-car voice technology, she asks for the best stain remover for spilt coffee. Her digital assistant makes a suggestion based on feedback from customers who have bought similar products after their own unfortunate coffee incidents. The suggested product is added to a virtual shopping cart, ready for delivery.

Voice technology will allow for instant grocery shopping that reflects what is happening at any given moment. As each moment occurs, a voice search can be initiated, a suggestion can be offered, and a purchase can be made. This is one area where voice technology can radically transform grocery shopping.

Preparing for the new wave of voice technology

In early 2018, OC&C Strategy Consultants predicted that voice shopping in the United States and United Kingdom alone would increase from $2 billion dollars today to $40 billion in 2022. If that sort of explosive growth occurred in the Canadian grocery sector, the opportunities for retailers would be enormous.

Handling the sort of growth would also present sizeable challenges for retailers and brands. Preparing for this shift in shopping behaviours will involve:

  • Building a technology foundation that lives up to the promise of an easy and fast voice shopping experience. This includes a fully digitized product catalogue that’s API-accessible and e-commerce enabled.
  • Creating bots (apps) and connecting them to all channels that support third-party bots such as Alexa or Google Home. This could include chatbots that give customers the chance to ask questions about products, track orders, or start a return process simply by speaking into their devices.
  • Developing a keyword list specific to voice search and optimizing keywords to reflect how people talk.
  • Building a product search that is more conversational than text searches.
  • Predicting what is happening to the consumer at the time of a voice query so product details can be supplied that match those scenarios.
  • Increasing the efficiency of data collection to boost profitability from repeat purchases and product replenishments.
  • Offering ultra-rapid delivery for “in the moment” shoppers who need a quick solution.

There is much to do to, but just as much to be gained. With 20 percent of internet users owning a smart speaker by the end of 2019, and all the other devices featuring some form of voice technology, Canadians are set to become more talkative grocery shoppers.

Grocery retailers who hear what consumers want, and who respond with voice technology that delivers the best shopping experience, will profit the most in these changing times.

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