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Alexa, if we all shop using Google Home, will I need a website in five years’ time?

(Image credit: Image Credit: StockSnap / Pixabay)

The Christmas adverts are out, the festive stores are open. The sickly-sweet Christmas coffees and seasonal paper cups are everywhere – and Christmas shopping, the stressful melee of in-store or remembering to check delivery dates, is upon us.

It’s no surprise that shoppers are jumping on any means to make this experience more pleasant, and recent research from Conversant has shown that almost a third (31 per cent) of consumers used voice assistants to buy Christmas presents last year, something which is sure to continue in 2018.

In fact, voice assistants – Alexa and Google Home in particular – have staged something of a coup in the last two years, offering solid functionality at a low enough price to make them incredibly compelling. ComScore even estimates (opens in new tab) that half of all searches will be done through voice search by 2020. Given that the first Alexa device was released a mere four years ago, this statistic deserves some recognition; in contrast, smartphones only became accountable for 60 per cent of searches in 2016 (opens in new tab) - and the first smartphone was released in 1993 (opens in new tab).

As well as an attractive price, one of the major reasons for this adoption is ease. According to WO Strategies (opens in new tab) 21 per cent of consumers use voice search because ‘they don’t like typing on their mobile phones’. And when it comes to shopping, convenience is king.

The wholly unsurprising statistic – unless it’s surprising because it’s lower than expected – is that two thirds (66 per cent) of shoppers have done Christmas shopping through their smartphones. Given that online mobile traffic exceeded desktop traffic sometime around 2016 (opens in new tab), this statistic can only increase this year – and in many cases, brands should think mobile first.

Staying strong in a fragmented world

It’s becoming very clear that when it comes to online selling and marketing, it’s frankly ridiculous to separate online and offline – consumers exist across the two and their decisions and opinions are influenced across both. There’s a plethora of choice in shopping, from voice to social to brand websites to third parties, as well as good old-fashioned physical stores, many of which are known for how well they embrace technology – such as Burberry’s use of virtual reality mirrors in its flagship store on Regent St, London (opens in new tab). In fact, there’s a huge brand awareness benefit to being physically present where a consumer may simply walk past your store: it’s essentially brand-led advertising, in addition to being an outlet.

This is recognised by savvy online brands – in particular, where being in physical contact with the object that you’re going to buy is very important. For example, online furniture brand has three physical showrooms in very carefully chosen locations; Soho London, Birmingham’s prestigious Mailbox and the boutique interiors area of Redbrick in Batley, West Yorkshire. All of these are locations that not only see high footfall, but also reinforce the desirability of the brand.

The converse can also be true: some brands simply don’t know what to do with their physical stores, in a similar vein to the digital transformation of banking. Almost 800 bank branches have been closed in 2018 (opens in new tab) as a large proportion of online banking and bank services move to the web and mobile. They are by no means alone, as brands like Argos have recently closed down a large number of premises and consolidated within Sainsbury’s stores – although the brand has also been experimenting with more high-tech offerings, allowing customers to order via iPads in-store, collect eBay purchases and looked at tiny-format stores near major stations, for example.

This degree of innovation is certainly to be lauded and has almost become a staple in the armoury of a modern, successful brand. As new technology moves evermore quickly, brands must experiment to keep up – particularly as the boundaries between online and offline blur. In fact, according to studies by Google and Vodafone (opens in new tab), younger shoppers no longer distinguish between online and offline worlds – and this has a vast impact on shopping.

By spending wisely, knowing your audience well and reaching them across channels that they respect, online campaigns can certainly have significantly more impact than offline spending.

Knowledge is power

One of my favourite technology and e-commerce quotes at the moment is a Zen proverb 1,400 years old: “if you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions”. This has never been more true – and it’s crucially important that staff don’t dismiss the latest trends of social buying or ‘vCommerce’ as a gimmick without good reason.

However, it’s a fine balance; many mega-brands may have technology experimentation budgets and are able to throw large amounts at the latest and greatest, but few mid-sized and even large companies in the UK have the same kind of carte blanche. The pressure to show returns on the latest technology or digital sales channel is more pronounced than ever before – here, small-scale experimentation and measurement of genuine return is key.

So, back to the original question – will voice search replace ‘traditional’ ecommerce? Well, it’s a bit like asking whether streaming videos will replace podcasts and radio, and easy to answer – no. But it’s not that simple. Voice shopping is a remarkably solid way to make Christmas shopping easier and increasing numbers of retailers and service providers will have to learn to ‘share’ their budgets amongst an increasingly fragmented number of channels.

Similarly, it has significant implications for what we buy as well as how we buy – if you’re asking Siri to order you AA batteries or order Thai food for dinner, you’re leaving the brand up to the assistant, pushing all of the savvy branding out of the window. Of course, we don’t quite know how this will unfold, and many consumers would order a specific brand of battery, or from a specific restaurant through Deliveroo or JustEat. The future is as yet unset and represents another reason why savvy marketers must keep up with the times.

Overall – and like all good technology and commercial strategy – it’s a question of balance and those that get the mix right will triumph.

Elliott Clayton, Senior Vice President Media UK, Conversant (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: StockSnap / Pixabay

Elliott is Senior Vice President Media UK at Conversant and holds a decade of expertise in media personalisation, blending technology, strategy, and massive data for many of the top Fortune 500 companies.