Think about the last time you set foot in your local grocery store…were you fully satisfied with that experience? The supermarket shopping trip has regressed into a crowded and chaotic environment that has grown into hours-long errands, sharply contrasting with other shopping experiences that are more seamless. 

The future of retail has been hanging in the balance for some time. While the rise of e-commerce has been slowly displacing brick-and-mortar presences, with the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re now seeing this happen at an unprecedented speed. McKinsey shows the U.S. experiencing 10 years’ of e-commerce growth in the span of three months. With consumers weary of returning to stores or spending significant time inside them, it’s time for retailers to rethink their strategies.

In parallel, there’s another trend that’s been picking up steam, and a technology that is poised to transform retail both during and after the pandemic. 

It’s voice

The Evolving Shopping Journey

In the U.S., 60 million people own at least one smart speaker, nearly a quarter of the population. In April 2020, 45% of internet users worldwide said that they use voice search and voice commands on devices each month, an increase from January. As homes morph into connected internet hubs with all types of smart devices, Juniper Research predicted that voice commerce will reach $80 billion by 2023.

The pandemic has only accelerated this adoption of voice technology, branding these virtual assistants as trusted devices in the daily routine, from music and entertainment to shopping. The percentage of voice-assistant users that use voice tech several times a day or every day ticked up from 46% before COVID to 52%.

The touchless, voice-driven shopping experience poses several opportunities in the consumer buying journey, starting with product research.

Voice can be used to provide information about store hours, inventory, prices, FAQs, and product availability with a simple question to the voice assistant. Voice can also be used to glean information about product comparisons and attributes as consumers decide what to purchase and from where. Not only can these functions be used by consumers before they leave for their shopping trips, but they can be used in in-store environments while consumers shop. Retailers are catching on to this potential.

In June 2020, European retailer Carrefour collaborated with Google Assistant to launch voice-based online shopping, allowing consumers to add items to their shopping carts without leaving the comfort of their own homes. Similarly, in India, Walmart acquired the Indian e-commerce company Flipkart, which introduced an in-app voice assistant for its grocery platform, streamlining the shopping experience. Users can add items to their carts and explore product offerings with easy voice commands in Hindi or English.

Ultimately, COVID is altering how we interact in any setting. To reduce interactions with other people and touchscreens, 77% of consumers expected to increase their use of voice and AI touchless interfaces during COVID. Especially in grocery stores during browsing and purchasing sessions, voice can be used to trim the time we spend pacing the aisles and provide alternate options to interact with employees during the checkout process. Voice-navigated smart displays can direct customers to specific products and brands. 40% of consumers said they would be comfortable with using conversational AI in grocery stores. Of the consumers who said they would prefer using a voice AI assistant over a human assistant, 73% attributed their preference to COVID.

Companies are already implementing this new technology. Mastercard’s new “Shop Anywhere” platform offers no wait and no checkout lines for brick-and-mortar stores and will be deployed in Dunkin’ stores in October, and chains like Circle K are experimenting with cashierless convenience stores. This fall, Amazon is opening its first Fresh grocery store, where shoppers can ask Echo Show devices where certain products are located. Smart Dash Carts, linked to Alexa-enabled shopping lists and furnished with sensors, barcode scanners, and scales, automatically charge groceries to customers’ Amazon accounts as they leave the store.

Some shoppers are deciding to avoid the store altogether by buying products online and picking them up in person. In April 2020, buy-online, pickup-in-store (BOPIS) orders skyrocketed 208% year-over-year. This trend is here to stay59% of consumers are more likely to use curbside pickup in this new reality, and 75% said they would continue to choose curbside pickup in the post-pandemic world. Even prior to COVID, 90% of brick-and-mortar retailers were expected to offer BOPIS by 2021, up from 70% in 2019, illustrating the relentless momentum of this new method of shopping unaided by a global pandemic.

As shoppers opt to stay at home with curbside pickup, voice can consistently replenish these regular online orders. Shopping lists can be created and orders for delivery or pickup placed just by saying an easy command to your nearby smart assistant, with the possibility of authorizing orders with only your voice.

Back-of-House Efficiency

Consumer-facing voice assistants have been stealing the spotlight for the last few years and now are helping customers safely maneuver or avoid grocery stores. However, employee-facing applications are making their own star debuts by providing cost savings to retailers while protecting employees who are on the floor during their shifts.

Theatro, an AI virtual assistant for the workforce, imagines a future where every hourly employee is connected with a mobile device, instantly providing information to employees for better service encounters. Its apps span order management, human capital management, task management, and more, and only require simple voice commands. This kind of use case shows the potential voice technology can have to streamline employees’ day-to-day tasks and improve customer service.

Large retailers are also betting that voice-first interactions are the key to increased productivity and enhanced customer service, especially in a new reality that discourages touching shared surfaces. One notable example is Walmart’s recently launched “Ask Sam” assistant, which has been made available to over 5,000 employees in the U.S. Store associates can use Sam for price lookups, product locations, and emergency alerts.

As COVID continues to redefine grocery shopping, services like Instacart, a grocery delivery service where Instacart contractors purchase your groceries and drop them off, have stepped into the mainstream. During the first two weeks of April 2020, customers bought $700 million worth of groceries through the service, an increase of 450% from December. With this dramatic surge, voice-enabled mobile shopping lists could help “pick and pack” employees navigate their shopping trips in shorter periods.

If established face-to-face buying behaviors are now untenable, voice can reconstruct the point of sale (POS) and checkout experiences to accommodate the need for indirect interactions, freeing up employees’ workload so they can focus on other tasks. Mastercard’s “Drive Through” voice AI tech for drive-thrus will be piloted in White Castle locations starting in October 2020. In June 2020, McDonald’s employed 10 voice-ordering kiosks in Madrid for contactless transactions during the pandemic. But the fast food giant had its pulse on voice long before people registered its necessity—McDonald’s doubled down on voice ordering technology for drive-thrus with its September 2019 acquisition of Apprente, a voice tech startup.

Innovating the employee experience for efficiency is just one way voice can help create a better customer experience and drive profitability for retailers. 

New On-the-Go Customer Experiences

Voice doesn’t stop at in-store shopping trips and employee-facing solutions—emerging surfaces position voice as one part of a greater ecosystem that unites the car, hearables, and other channels. When thinking about voice in systems, the possibilities are endless.

The car is a natural modality to incorporate voice, and the rise of in-car voice assistants has captured the car as the central hub of on-the-go activity. As of January 2020, nearly 130 million drivers used in-car voice assistants. Hyundai, Mercedes Benz, Kia, Honda, and Groupe PSA have all developed or are currently developing voice assistants with SoundHound’s Houndify technology. Voice ordering, payment on-the-go, or use of geo-location data to find nearby stores are all possibilities on the cusp of reality, compressing the BOPIS journey to a short car ride to and from the store.

Wireless hearables also offer ample opportunity for voice experiences whenever and wherever, liberated by the absence of a cord. The debut of Apple’s AirPods in 2016 upended how we listen to and engage with our mobile devices. The hearables market is expected to reach $93.8 billion by 2026 as consumers gravitate to cordless earbuds. Not only have AirPods entered the market, but other companies have jumped on the bandwagon—Microsoft, Samsung, OnePlus, Google, and Amazon have all released versions of smart earbuds.

Because hearables enable hands-free activity, there is a unique opportunity to create a voice-activated retail wayfinding experience geared toward smart earbud owners, mitigating concerns about in-store public contact. Wayfinding guides people through a physical space, and voice can provide direction to a destination, such as within your local supermarket. This opportunity is already appearing on the radar of tech companies—Amazon began piloting the use of Echo Buds in determining the availability of canned tomatoes in a local Whole Foods and where those tomatoes were located inside the store.

The grocery store is inevitably a complex maze that demands your time while you scour shelves for a specific item, but in a COVID world, this complicated, draining experience needs to transform. 

If earbuds provide well-designed, voice-first wayfinding solutions, shoppers can quickly obtain information on item locations, revolutionizing in-store shopping. With in-depth integrations that connect the earbud experience to retailers’ mobile apps or integrate with beacon technology, detailed and area-specific location information can be delivered straight to users’ ears in an instant.

Hearables aren’t only for shoppers. Employees can leverage a hands-free system to quickly and safely accommodate the meteoric rise in order-ahead and curbside pickup services, bypassing the need for shared surfaces to assemble and prepare the barrage of incoming orders. Third-party services like Instacart can also benefit from a tool that allows its workers to swiftly pick up the products on their customers’ shopping lists.

The number of voice-enabled devices keeps growing as we speed toward a smart home driven by the Internet of Things. Wearables including glasses, smart watches, and rings have begun integrating voice, and as these devices mature and tap into A/R or precise indoor location data, retailers will have an arsenal of new tools to improve the customer experience.

The Retail Reckoning

Although retail has been hit hard by COVID-19, the pandemic is accelerating innovation that was necessary regardless. As retailers look to evolve their services to meet this moment, voice is ripe for exploration as a way to elevate customer experiences and drive operational efficiencies. When the pandemic is finally quelled, retailers will be well-served to be ahead of the technological curve and prepared to deliver on new shopper expectations.