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.


UAE banks benefit from US Fed rate rises

Updated 47 min 17 sec ago
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UAE banks benefit from US Fed rate rises

  • With the dirham pegged to the US dollar, the actions of the US central bank have a direct impact on interest rates charged by UAE banks
  • With another Fed rate hike potentially on the horizon in December, analysts said the Gulf country’s banks could find it harder to keep ramping up the cost of borrowing

LONDON: Banks in the UAE are reaping the benefits of the US Federal Reserve’s three rate rises so far this year, with healthy increases in net interest incomes helping bolster profits.
With the dirham pegged to the US dollar, the actions of the US central bank have a direct impact on interest rates charged by UAE banks.
The UAE Central Bank last increased its repo rate by 25 basis points and raised interest rates on certificates of deposit on Sept. 26 to bring it in line with the Fed’s earlier move.
With another Fed rate hike potentially on the horizon in December, analysts said the Gulf country’s banks could find it harder to keep ramping up the cost of borrowing for their corporates or individual clients.
“Due to ample liquidity in the system, supported by high crude prices, banks are struggling to pass the rate hikes to customers,” said Chiradeep Ghosh, research analyst at Sico Bank in Bahrain.

 

 “We expect UAE banks to report only a modest (net interest margin) expansion, despite a likely three to four more Fed rate hikes by the end of 2019.”
In the last reported quarter, UAE banks revealed increases in net interest income of varying degrees.
Banks’ profitability is typically driven by net interest income, which accounted for 69 percent of the UAE sector’s total net revenue in 2017, according to a Oct. 3 Moody’s Investors Services report.
Dubai-headquartered Emirates NBD reported one of the largest increases in interest income this year.
The bank posted net profits of 7.7 billion dirhams ($2.1 billion) for first nine months of the year, 24 percent up year-on-year. This increase was supported by 9.5 billion dirhams in net interest income, a 19 percent increase on the previous year. In contrast, non-interest income dropped 2 percent for the same time period.
First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB) reported smaller increases, with net interest income reaching 9.75 billion dirhams for the first nine months of the year, marginally up by 0.1 percent.
The increase was slightly more noticeable in the third quarter alone, jumping by 1.2 percent compared to Q3 last year, according to its Oct. 23 statement.
FAB said net interest income was “broadly stable” due to “strong business volumes and rate hike benefits,” according to a bank presentation.
Dubai-based Mashreq Bank said its net interest income, combined with Islamic financing income, climbed by 4.5 percent in the first nine months year-on-year to reach 2.8 billion dirhams, according to a Oct. 21 filing.
Analysts said the increase in the banks’ interest-related income has helped to counter some of the risk of rising funding costs looming over banks.
“We expect that rising interest rates will increase system-wide net interest margins as banks’ higher gross yields outweigh the increase in funding costs,” Moody’s said.
Continued rate hikes could, however, start to affect the financing costs for corporate and individual borrowers and be a drag on economic growth, analysts said.
“Rate hikes would definitely dent the borrowing appetite of UAE corporations and the banks would not be left with much option but to lower their spread over interbank rate which they charge corporates,” said Ghosh.
“The capacity of UAE companies to bear higher debt burden would eventually depend on the economic activities in the UAE. A weak economic environment, along with a surge in higher funding cost may lead to pick up in delinquencies,” he said.
Ehsan Khoman, head of regional research and strategy at MUFG, based in Dubai, said the country should be able to absorb the impact of higher interest rates for now.
“Rising interest rates are unlikely to derail the UAE’s benign economic growth outlook in the near-term. The impact of higher rates should be more than offset by government stimulus. Having said that, it’s an additional factor to consider that GDP growth will remain weak by historical standards,” he said.
Some UAE companies have already reported higher financing costs in their latest Q3 results.
The UAE-based United Food Company (UFC) said on Nov. 5 that finance costs paid in the first nine months of the year reached 535,742 dirhams, compared to the lower amount of 364,568 dirhams recorded in the same period in 2017.
Dubai Investments said on Nov. 5 that finance expenses for the first nine months of the year reached 133.6 million dirhams compared to 69.4 million dirhams.

FACTOID

BACKGROUND

The US Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates three times this year. It left rates unchanged in November but is likely to make another hike next month.