Shopping ‘Star Trek’ style becomes next frontier for most major brands

A fridge managed using Amazon’s Alexa is showcased at the CES consumer technology trade show in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
Updated 18 June 2018
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Shopping ‘Star Trek’ style becomes next frontier for most major brands

  • The use of smart speakers has expanded the possibilities available through smartphone chatbots or text-based systems, including those from Facebook and Apple.
  • Voice shopping is expected to jump to $40 billion annually in 2022 in the US, from $2 billion today, according to a survey this year by OC&C Strategy Consultants.

WASHINGTON: Voice shopping using smart speakers and smartphone apps is starting to gain traction among consumers, opening up a new “conversational commerce” channel and potentially disrupting the retail sector.

Devices such as Amazon’s Alexa-powered speakers and Google Home, which use artificial intelligence to respond to voice commands, are offering new choices to consumers who are looking for more convenient ways to order goods and services.

Voice shopping is expected to jump to $40 billion annually in 2022 in the US, from $2 billion today, according to a survey this year by OC&C Strategy Consultants.

“People are liking the convenience and natural interaction of using voice,” said Victoria Petrock of the research firm eMarketer.

“Computing in general is moving more toward voice interface because the technology is more affordable, and people are responding well because they don’t have to type.”

A recent eMarketer survey found 36 percent of US consumers liked the idea of using a home-based assistant such as Amazon Echo for making a purchase.

Amazon’s devices, which hit the market in 2015, were designed in large part to help boost sales, and Google Home was launched a year later.

“This is growing exponentially,” said Mark Taylor, an executive vice president at consultancy Capgemini and co-author of a study on conversational commerce.

“We’re getting very used to asking Alexa or Google to do something on our behalf, which makes it simple to switch and say, ‘Hey Alexa, buy me dog food.’”

Capgemini research shows many consumers are satisfied with voice interactions and that this is growing for search and information as well as for purchases and that this is likely to become a “dominant” mode of consumer action within a few years.

“It’s becoming part of the fabric of our lives,” Taylor said.

The most commonly shopped categories through voice are groceries, entertainment, electronics and clothing, according to OC&C.

For now, Taylor said, most voice-based purchases have been “low consideration goods” such as items consumers have purchased before.

But as people grow comfortable with voice assistants, Taylor sees a potential for growth in “higher consideration” items including insurance or financial services.

An important element will be the tonality and personality established by intelligent assistants that will help companies establish an image or brand.

“People like to talk to human beings because humans give insight and guidance, and AI can do the same thing,” he said.

The “conversational interface” is a tremendous advantage in some situations, said Manlio Carrelli, executive vice president at Live Person, which provides technology for firms in online platforms.

“This is like ‘Star Trek,’” Carrelli told AFP. “I can just say what I want and get it. Consumers don’t care what’s on the back end, they just want to be able to get what they want.”

Carrelli said these systems are important not only for sales, but for customer service — reducing the need for dreaded call centers and saving millions for businesses.

“We’re now entering the mainstream for this market,” Carrelli said. “I don’t think you’ll find a single major brand that isn’t looking at this.”

Walmart last month launched a text-based concierge shopping service called Jetblack, which uses both artificial intelligence and professional assistants offering buying suggestions as part of its effort to compete with Amazon.

But Walmart is one of dozens of retailers offering voice-based shopping through Google Express as well, along with sellers of flowers, hardware, groceries and other goods.

Domino’s Pizza has embraced this technology, allowing orders through Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Facebook Messenger and other platforms.

In France, Google Home devices can be used to shop at the giant retailing group Carrefour. And retailers in China have been partnering tech firms for similar services.

According to OC&C, Amazon Echo speakers are used in around 10 percent of US homes, with 4 percent for Google Home.

According to the report, Apple is lagging behind in this sector as its Siri assistant lacks the AI capabilities of Google, and the new HomePod has only just hit the market.

Apple just this year rolled out “business chat,” enabling consumers to ask questions and place orders through iPhone text or voice commands, and see images of products on the iMessage service. Retailers Lowe’s and Home Depot are among the partners.

Some analysts, however, expect more players to enter the market, with speculation rampant about a speaker from Facebook, which now is allowing business and consumers to connect through Messenger chatbots.

“Voice commerce represents the next major disruption in the retail industry, and just as e-commerce and mobile commerce changed the retail landscape, shopping through smart speaker promises to do the same,” said John Franklin of OC&C.


China sees ‘enormous potential’ in Saudi economy as crown prince visits

Updated 4 min 24 sec ago
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China sees ‘enormous potential’ in Saudi economy as crown prince visits

  • China supports Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy and is willing to strengthen high-tech cooperation, State Councillor Wang Yi said
  • Saudi Aramco is set to sign a pact to build a refinery and petrochemical project in Liaoning province in a joint venture with China’s Norinco

BEIJING: China sees “enormous potential” in Saudi Arabia’s economy and wants more high-tech cooperation, the Chinese government’s top diplomat said, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began a two-day trip to Beijing.
The Saudi delegation, including top executives from Saudi Aramco, arrived on Thursday on an Asia tour that has already seen the kingdom pledge investment of $20 billion in Pakistan and seek additional investment in India’s refining industry.
The crown prince will meet President Xi Jinping, who has made stepping up China’s presence in the Middle East a key foreign policy objective, despite its traditional low-key role there.
Meeting Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, State Councillor Wang Yi said the main features of their ties were respect, understanding and support for each other, China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement late on Thursday.
“All countries in the world have the right to develop, and Saudi Arabia is an emerging market country with enormous potential,” the ministry paraphrased Wang as saying.
China supports Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy and is willing to strengthen high-tech cooperation, Wang added.
Saudi Aramco, the world’s top oil exporter, will sign a pact to build a refinery and petrochemical project in northeastern Liaoning province in a joint venture with China’s defense conglomerate Norinco, three sources with knowledge of the matter said.
The investments could help Saudi Arabia regain its place as the top oil exporter to China, a position Russia has held for the last three years. Saudi Aramco is set to boost market share by signing supply deals with non-state Chinese refiners.
China has had to step carefully in relations with Riyadh, since Beijing also has close ties with Iran.
On Wednesday, Xi told the speaker of Iran’s parliament that China’s desire to develop close ties with Iran would stay unaltered, regardless of the global situation.
China is also wary of criticism from Muslim countries about its camps in the heavily Muslim far western region of Xinjiang, which the government says are for de-radicalization purposes and rights groups call internment camps.
Wang said both countries face the threats of terrorism and extremism, and should strengthen cooperation to safeguard security and stability.
China was not seeking to play politics in the Middle East, the widely-read state-run tabloid, the Global Times, said in an editorial on Friday.
“China won’t be a geopolitical player in the Middle East. It has no enemies and can cooperate with all countries in the region,” said the paper, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily.
“China’s increasing influence in the Middle East comes from pure friendly cooperation. Such a partnership will be welcomed by more countries in the Middle East.”