A roundup of technology-driven tools that drive consumer understanding, engagement and conversion on every step of the path to purchase.
While nowhere near as surreal as, say, an Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, it’s nonetheless astonishing that TheRealCannaBus, “the world’s first and only mobile cannabis dispensary,” is out there right now rolling toward a trade show near you. But the purpose of the CannaBus and its operators, Bowling Green, Kentucky-based Enlighten Wellness, is about as far from tripping-the-light fantastic as you can get: “We offer retailers ... the chance to experience hands-on interaction with Enlighten’s cutting-edge retail technology [and have brand partners, including apparel marketer Vans, retail software maker Blaze, and Live Nation] seen by top executives in the cannabis space.” With any luck, you already dropped out and tuned into the CannaBus last month at CES. Otherwise, see it in March at South by Southwest.
H-E-B has launched a mobile app, “My H-E-B,” that boasts dozens of new and improved features. Customers can now order groceries for curbside pickup or home delivery, reorder previous orders and shop past purchases. Shopping can be done by browsing departments, scanning product bar codes or choosing items from curated collections. In-store shoppers (there are 200-plus locations across Texas) can see product availability, find where it is in the store, and scan a single bar code at checkout to redeem all clipped coupons instantly. H-E-B’s digital team, split between Austin and company headquarters in San Antonio, worked with Apple and Salesforce on the app.
SPOTLIGHT: Voice Commerce
If you’re the type who instinctively rebuffs approaches by salespeople, you’ll probably resist interacting, out loud, in public, with a machine, too. The Mars Agency seems to understand this intuitively with its voice commerce installations by focusing on markets where the device actually serves an essential function. Both of their most notable installations – the “Liv at Estee Lauder” experience in New York City and the SmartAisle systems in California BevMo liquor stores – contain a breadth and depth of information that only the rarest of store clerks can match. A SmartAisle device once helped me zero in on and confidently purchase an offbeat whiskey for a particularly persnickety person. Rule No. 1: Make the interaction worth our while. Similarly, Ombori, a Swedish agency, approaches voice commerce as an element within a broader, multi-media “guided selling” experience. The key is enabling the user to select and control the interactions. Sometimes it’s faster to answer questions vocally, and sometimes it is more efficient to tap the screen – it’s the mix that matters. This winter, the company began testing these Virtual Assistants at various airports around the globe. Another nice wrinkle: Shoppers scan their boarding passes for flight info, the weather at their destination and how many more minutes they can shop. Rule No. 2: Always follow rule No. 1.
The Voice Commerce (VC) marketplace is noisy, with a debate over what to call it: Some use VC, but many prefer “conversational commerce,” and some go with c-commerce while others dabble with VoiceTech or AI/Voice. There are a lot of loud claims being made on the voice end, too: The Harvard Business Review (HBR) calls voice assistants the fastest growing consumer technology since the smartphone, with global estimates as high as 8 billion users, and a U.S. base around 110 million monthly users. Google Home alone claims 500 million users.
That’s why, as a product feature at least, “voice” seems to be popping up just about everywhere lately. Here are a few from this winter:
• Reverie Connect now offers a voice-commanded adjustable bed;
• Kohler’s Moxie is a showerhead/smart speaker with a built-in Alexa voice assistant that’s powered, in case you were worried, via cordless charging; and
• Epson printers now feature “voice-activated hands-free printing” using Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant (slightly ironic, considering the whole digital revolution was premised on being paper-free).
Some voice-tech deployments may strike you as a bit of a stretch, however, one of the oddest being McDonald’s Apply Thru, the “world’s first voice-initiated application process,” accessible via Google Assistant or Alexa.
Prepare to take a step into one possible future for voice commerce. AlterEgo is a university-based research project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The AlterEgo system is a wearable interface that enables a user to silently converse with a computing device, AI assistant, IoT applications or even other people without any voice or any discernible movements. A user’s internal speech is characterized by neuromuscular signals in internal speech articulators that are captured by the AlterEgo system to reconstruct this speech. The wearable system reads electrical impulses from the surface of the skin in the lower face and neck that occur when a user is internally vocalizing words or phrases – without actual speech, voice, or discernible movements. The device cannot read a person’s mind, but it can read signals from facial and vocal cord muscles when a person intentionally, deliberately and silently voices words.
While MIT has a working prototype that, after training with user-specific example data, demonstrates over 90% accuracy on an application-specific vocabulary, it is also quick to point out that “any hopes for commercialization are premature.”
It’s a safe bet that most shoppers are most comfortable conducting voice commerce from the privacy of their mobile phones. Sephora, which was one of the first to team up with Google Assistant several years ago, is often cited as a model worth emulating because its technology is so easy to use – put a thumb on the button, ask questions in plain language to sort through their deep roster of offerings, and see instant results.
Sometimes, however, voice commerce seems more like a solution in search of a problem. Sony Pictures promoted the Christmas release of “Jumanji: The Next Level” by asking fans to visit ExploreJumangi.com on their phones or pads, touting it as one of the “first voice-activated AR experiences on the web.” The app, built by Trigger and powered by AWS and 8th Wall, exhorted users to say “show me Jumanji” to access special content like detailed animation and videos shot especially for the app. That’s fine, and it worked (sort of) for me, but soon, as the app asked me to say, “buy tickets” over and over, I realized the game was primarily just a “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine”-style commercial.
The words “conversational commerce” may very well become the umbrella term for a widening array of evolving, voice-triggered commercial applications. Take, for example, Theatro’s AI-powered Intelligent Assistant that began implementation last summer across a good number of Walgreens’ 9,000-plus stores. The idea is to give every worker access to a conversational interface using their own, idiosyncratic everyday language. In the example illustrated, this employee – on her first day on the job – is already able to ask the system’s “Intelligent Assistant” to look up the availability of a certain SKU.
Some brands are positioning the whole enterprise around conversational communication with customers. Beverage-maker Iris Nova uses a proprietary tech platform that offers a “frictionless ordering and customer service experience;” the company then blends these natural conversations (collected as text messages) and the consumption data in order to formulate and deliver innovative products. The company claims that it can create a beverage concept, from ideation to production, in 30 days.
Iris Nova operates a related property, The Drug Store, which is a conceptual retail experience and testing space. The front section of each Drug Store is a retail experience – a cashierless walk-in “vending machine” – that utilizes Iris Nova’s proprietary SMS technology and conversational commerce platform. The cashierless shop is said to be the “first text-to-order retail store in the world.” The store is completely unstaffed and based on the honor system, where the only point of sale is the customer’s cell phone. The back of each space is a cocktail bar that’s used to test new beverage concepts before they are produced in bottled format on a national scale. New iterations of The Drug Store are scheduled to open in Chicago in early 2020 and in Los Angeles sometime this summer.
On the “commerce” end of VC, the signals are even noisier. Alibaba says 1 million orders were placed and paid for on its AliGenie voice assistant on Nov. 11, 2019, “Singles Day,” which is significant but requires context: That’s out of 600 million-plus shoppers who spent an astonishing $32 billion during this one-day shopping binge. And although Amazon doesn’t share numbers, HBR poked into some data that suggests that only 2% of Amazon Echo owners have ever tried voice shopping.
Meanwhile, there’s the possibility of a “format war,” an infra-industry squabble over technical standards that, in the past, helped kill off innovations like Quadraphonic, Betamax and LaserDiscs. A whole host of groups and conferences are popping up in this space, but two seem especially active. On one side is Project Voice, claiming to be the “No. 1 event for voice tech and AI in America.” In January, the group named Blutag as its “Retail Voice Developer of the Year” at a gala sponsored by Google. Blutag is a turnkey SaaS solution that enables companies like Bloomingdales, Vinebox and FreshDirect to deliver voice apps without coding.
On the other side is the Open Voice Network (OVN), a coalition of companies that is standing up against what it considers a duopoly, Google and Amazon. OVN says that unless challenged, the two will remain “gatekeepers” and inevitably will restrict access to all “data-rich artificial intelligence-enabled voice assistance (AI-voice) communication.” Supported by the Linux Foundation, OVN wants consumer-facing enterprises, technology companies, marketing firms and university researchers to join with it to open up the AI-voice marketplace so it is standards-based, interoperable, accessible and data-protected.