Voice recognition technology is expediting the race to frictionless retail

You’re a sales associate at a big-box retailer and a customer just asked whether the latest iPhone 7 is in stock. You proceed to ask your colleague, Stuart, the same question, and he tells you the product is sold out.

But there’s something odd about this scenario: You didn’t move an inch, and Stuart isn’t a person. Stuart is an artificially intelligent assistant that lives in your earpiece. Each day, he saves you multiple trips to the stock room to do inventory checks, because he’s autonomously connected to your retailer’s inventory management and point-of-sale systems.

Stuart represents the recent advancements in voice recognition technology, which are poised to transform the retail landscape. The conventionally human task that he’s performing is speech recognition — a critical component of the apex of artificial intelligence. The holy grail of voice recognition technology is to render speech as a natural method of communication between humans and the software that’s proverbially eating the world.

The potential impact of voice recognition technology on the retail sector is vast and compelling, and can be understood through two separate lenses: customer experience and productivity.

A better customer experience

With respect to customer experience, retailers must first evaluate the contexts and situations in which shoppers currently find it difficult to engage in commerce, despite the ubiquity of smartphones. A good place to start is to think about when a shopper may have a fleeting impulse to make a purchase, but lacks the will to pull out their mobile phone or reach for the laptop to initiate the transaction.

According to this year’s Internet Trends report by Mary Meeker, partner at venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, examples of contexts in which consumers want to make purchases but can’t include: while at home doing housework; driving a car; or while on the go. It’s still difficult for shoppers to engage in commerce in these situations because hands or vision are usually occupied, they expect faster results and there’s a desire to avoid the difficulty associated with typing on certain devices.

Once the context for applying voice recognition technology is understood, the next step is to leverage the shopper’s ability to speak and make it possible for him or her to initiate a transaction more conveniently. Leading technology firms such as Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are racing to release voice recognition platforms and services that allow software to comprehend human speech and engage in a two-way dialogue with users. The initial application of this technology has primarily been for search-related functions through artificially intelligent personal assistants.

The holy grail of voice recognition technology is to render speech as a natural method of communication between humans and the software that’s proverbially eating the world.

Unsurprisingly, early consumer trends are demonstrating rapid adoption of this new capability. Meeker’s report shows that in 2015, 65 percent of smartphone users in the U.S. were using voice assistants. Also, at this year’s Google I/O, the company announced that 20 percent of all searches conducted digitally have voice intent. Making matters more urgent, ComScore predicts that by 2020, 50 percent of all searches will be voice searches. Given the number of searches that are run each day, these statistics represent the growing need for retailers to understand the implications of voice search.

Retailers that are keen to take the leap and add voice recognition capabilities to their existing suite of consumer applications can leverage the major voice recognition platforms in various ways. For example, Apple’s Siri is open to developers (via the SiriKit) who want to integrate their iOS 10 applications to the voice service and leverage its human speech interpretation capability to drive a better user experience for customers.

It’s worth noting, however, that the voice recognition platforms and services offered by the tech giants (Google Now, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft Cortana) are tightly linked to the hardware and software developed by each company. For retailers seeking to license a more custom voice recognition capability and don’t want to be limited by choice of hardware or operating system, startups such as MindMeld are innovating in the natural language processing space and can meet this demand.

Driving productivity

When it comes to enhancing productivity in-store or through business operations, voice recognition technology can drive sales and make a big impact on a retailer’s bottom line. Retailers invest heavily in human capital and a network of sales associates. As noted in the scenario at the very beginning, delivering a positive in-store customer experience is critical. But this can be difficult when sales associates are forced to deal with disparate sources of information across vast distances.

Companies such as Theatro are equipping retail staff with earpieces that enable them to communicate more efficiently with one another, but, more importantly, also seamlessly communicate with the critical back-end inventory and point-of-sale software that acts as the single source of truth for all product information. The end result is undivided attention to the customer.

In addition to maximizing the efficiency of store associates, voice recognition technology can drive productivity on the customer loyalty front. Many retailers continue to rely on call centers, and startups such as VoiceBase are making them more efficient by increasing the data points around customer feedback, while also making it easier to process the information retrieved. Such companies and their solutions pose broader questions about the wider impact of artificial intelligence on the involvement of human capital in retail operations.

Although the advent of smartphones and mobile platforms has made commerce ubiquitous, it still hasn’t made it entirely frictionless. Our ability to communicate with any form of technology has remained largely the same over the years, consisting of entering commands through some type of keyboard and interpreting the output independently by looking at a screen. This can be inefficient, cumbersome and costly.

As retail evolves, so does the need for a solution that makes it easier for customers to discover and purchase the products they love, while allowing retailers to become less distracted and more productive. The latest advancements in voice recognition technology are poised to do just that.