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Holiday shopping with your Amazon Echo? You're a trendsetter

Buying stuff using your smart speaker could be the future. For now, it’s hard.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

One of the few times James Helisek used his Echo Dot to buy something, it was an accident.

He mentioned dog treats to Alexa, and the voice assistant added those treats to his Amazon shopping cart. Not realizing what Alexa had done, he added even more treats to his Amazon cart the next time he was shopping online, along with some pantry items, resulting in a purchase of two big boxes of the snacks.

Barring any other stowaway doggie treats, Helisek said he isn't interested in making purchases via his smart speakers this Black Friday and beyond. He's more comfortable buying stuff on his laptop and phone.

"I'm just kind of set in my ways," said the 31-year-old sign language interpreter for the Philadelphia public schools.

Most customers side with Helisek's perspective, with just 25 percent of US smart speaker owners using the devices to buy goods, according to Adobe. In comparison, 70 percent play music and 64 percent ask for weather forecasts.

But several researchers predict a breakthrough is coming for voice shopping, despite its many shortcomings, like the difficulty in explaining complicated items. They say the technology appears to be following the same path as mobile shopping, which started off slow and is now a major channel for buying goods.

"The things that people were once never willing to buy on a mobile device they are buying on a mobile device," said Taylor Schreiner, who leads Adobe's Digital Insights research division. "A [similar] watershed moment is likely to happen in voice shopping."

If it happens, such a change would provide ample vindication for Amazon and Google, which so far have failed to get voice shopping to catch on, even with their massive resources, years of development and partnerships with retailers like Best Buy, Walmart and Target. If voice becomes the next big thing in retail, it would help Amazon strengthen its lead in online shopping and allow Google to become a stronger e-commerce competitor. The situation may also weaken any retailer needing to ask those companies for permission to join the party.

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As the market grows, tech giants that have been less focused on voice shopping may get more involved, helping Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Samsung's Bixby take part in all that new spending.

For customers, voice shopping could eventually offer a simpler, faster way to buy things, and someday even provide an AI that's smart and helpful enough to talk through a complex purchase. But we're not there yet, and that future may never happen. There's always the potential that voice shopping will remain a niche, with its limitations continuing to hold it down.

Amazon said millions of people already shop with Alexa for plenty of needs.

"Alexa Shopping is a time-saver for busy customers and their families making shopping easier," an Amazon spokesperson said. "Alexa makes it quick and simple to reorder a favorite product, answer product questions, add items to a shopping list or cart, check prices, shop in a store, organize grocery delivery from Whole Foods Market or Amazon Fresh, track package deliveries, and more."

Google didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

Chatterbox

Adobe's survey of over 1,000 US consumers found lots of shopping behaviors using smart speakers.

Adobe

While few smart-speaker owners said they order stuff with the devices, Adobe's Schreiner said if you dig a little deeper, there's reason to be optimistic about voice shopping. In all, half of the people Adobe surveyed used their smart speakers for a "shopping behavior," he said, with product searches and research being the most popular activity, followed by creating shopping lists and comparing prices.

That kind of activity mirrors the early days of mobile shopping, when most folks would research or compare prices on their phones, but few actually completed a purchase. Most people still use laptops and desktops for buying, but mobile purchasing from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday -- the busiest shopping period of the year -- has grown from 22 percent of US online sales in 2014 to 36 percent last year, Adobe said.

Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping data from this year shows this trend continuing, with mobile sales skyrocketing, but desktop remaining the leading way people buy, Adobe reported Friday. Voice shopping, meanwhile, hasn't been a meaningful contributor to sales so far this holiday season.

As smart speakers proliferate, voice shopping should continue to grow, especially because these devices got people to talk more to their phones and cars, Schreiner added. There are now 53 million smart speakers being used in the US, up from 27 million a year earlier, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Amazon Echo devices account for 70 percent of the total, while Google Home takes up 25 percent and Apple's HomePod takes 5 percent.

Ben Arnold, an analyst for the Consumer Technology Association, agreed with Schreiner's view, saying voice will become a fourth sales channel, along with brick-and-mortar, online and mobile.

"What we've seen in our research is that, yes, there's interest in voice shopping, there's people that plan to shop with their voice this holiday," Arnold said. "What will determine that is the quality of the promotions."

Mum's the word

Voice shopping is still young, so there are many reasons why it may fizzle out.

A few weeks ago, I sat down for an interview with Jonathan Scott, one of the identical twins who host HGTV's Property Brothers show. He told me about their new online home-goods store, called Casaza, which will include new tech like augmented reality so people can get an idea of what a piece of furniture might look like at home.

He was far less interested in voice shopping and had no plans to use it on the site.

"Try asking for a chaise lounge in turquoise with mahogany legs. It doesn't find it. It doesn't know what you're saying," Scott said about voice assistants in general. "Things like checking the weather, turning on and off appliances, lighting, it's phenomenal. Shopping for big-ticket items? We've found most of our clients have said no, it's not at a point where they're comfortable yet."

Scott hit on one of the many weaknesses of voice shopping today. Alexa and Google Assistant aren't good at responding to complex requests, like that chaise lounge. For clothing purchases that involve fit, color and material, these assistants stumble.

There are also problems when listening to shopping results. When queried about shoes or toothpaste, Alexa and Google Assistant talk only about one item at a time, which tends to be a slower process than just looking at your phone or laptop.

Also, comparison shopping between websites is harder to do, making it more difficult to ensure you're getting the best price or paying the same as in your previous order. Alexa and Google Assistant at times still misunderstand simple commands, adding to the risk of buying the wrong thing.

Amazon's spokesperson noted, though, that If customers want to see more details before buying, Alexa will send the information to their phone so they can complete the purchase using the Amazon app.

second-gen-amazon-echo-show-product-photos-1

The new Amazon Echo Show smart display may make voice shopping a little easier.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Some of these problems are also mitigated with smart displays, like the Amazon Echo Show and Google Home Hub, which are a combination of smart speaker and tablet, and came out starting last summer. With the help of the devices' touchscreens, users can see the lamp or pair of pants they want to order, they can browse more options more easily, and they're less likely to accidentally purchase the wrong item.

Even with the challenges, traditional retailers are starting to dip their toes in voice shopping, with most testing out simpler tasks like shopping lists and not yet offering purchasing, which would require a lot more logistics and development, said IBM exec Karl Haller, who consults with large retailers about using new technologies.

He said grocery and consumables retailers have been talking to him more about voice, while fashion and big-ticket retailers have been less interested. He expects voice shopping to grow in simpler retail areas, like reorders, and less so in complex segments like apparel.

"I can't imagine how painful it would be for Alexa to describe to me three different OLED TVs. It would take too long," Haller added.

But sometime in the future, he predicts, Alexa and Google Assistant may become as intelligent as a skilled sales associate and have a conversation with customers to figure out what they want to buy.

At that point, even someone like Helisek, the accidental voice shopper, said he'd be happy to use Alexa for purchasing.

"I'm a huge nerd, and I would totally be onboard for something like that," he said. "I think it would be really cool to have that kind of conversation."

First published at 5 a.m. PT. on Nov. 21.
Updated, 5:55 p.m. PT: Added more details on Echo and Google Home's market share.
Updated, 9:20 a.m. PT on Nov. 23: Adds information on Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales.

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