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Voice Commerce, AI and Omnichannel expected to be a big part of the mix in 2021

BY STEPHEN SILVER
When it comes to eCommerce, 2020 was a year unlike any other. Customers, stuck at home for much of the year, spent a lot of their time buying things. However, this left retailers with a dilemma of how exactly adjust to the new normal, while looking ahead to a post-pandemic future. What should retailers do, for 2021, to plan for an uncertain future, while also taking advantage of emerging technologies? Dealerscope reached out to Dean Sottile, senior vice president, digital and technology, Nationwide Marketing Group, and Andre Chandra, CEO of Propelo Media, to discuss what to expect for eCommerce in the new year, and perhaps beyond.
Our members have seen a tremendous increase in traffic and purchases from mobile devices, and we expect that growth to continue.
- Dean Sottile, Senior Vice President, Digital and Technology, Nationwide Marketing Group
Dealerscope: Will voice commerce become a bigger factor in 2021?
Dean Sottile: Absolutely. Especially for on-demand and need-it-now categories, where the use of voice-to-order is gaining popularity and gaining users. So, if you look at our retailers, voice commerce has significant potential for the purchase of replenishable items, such as pellets, sauces, seasonings and rubs for outdoor cooking.
For our primary categories, though — major appliances, furniture, bedding and consumer electronics — the idea of voice commerce isn’t focused on the sale itself as much as it is the research stage. Consumers are definitely using voice more to search for retailers near them or get more details about stores they’d like to visit in person, and independent retailers who have a strong online presence will consistently rise to the top of the search rankings for voice-initiated searches.
Andre Chandra: No doubt, a lot of companies are investing in voice-enabled AI that can interact with consumers and make a shopping experience intelligent and seamless, but… I’m sure we’ve all been frustrated with chatting with customer service that turns out to be AI robots giving canned answers, right? At the moment, voice recognition technology is more robust than ever (even learning your accents and speech tendencies), but the AI hasn’t really caught up to the comprehension level needed on par with a human salesperson/customer service. This may work with simpler or recurring purchases (i.e., “Hey Alexa, order me another box of Captain Crunch”), but harder otherwise. Meanwhile, Voice Commerce needs to compete with the already established ways of shopping, and it’s been easier than ever: easy to navigate, one-click purchase, secure checkout, etc.
Dealerscope: Are the voice assistant devices like Amazon Echo (Alexa) and Google Home starting to become a big deal for consumers in ordering products — and what do retailers need to know about optimizing their online voice search?
Dean Sottile: Voice assistant devices are growing in popularity for products like dishwashing detergent or laundry detergent, where customers reorder the same products regularly. But for high-consideration purchases, customers are more likely to spend time researching using a device, especially now due to limited inventory.
Retailers still need to optimize for voice search, but more for their website and directory listings than for purchasing. For example, a customer might ask, “What are the store hours for John’s Appliances?” And, not only should the returned results accurately reflect their store hours, but if a consumer is searching on Google, the information that’s returned should pull from their Google My Business Listing.
According to Google, searches for “Best XXXX Category” continue to outpace searches for “Cheap XXXX Category,” which indicates that consumers are looking past the lowest-priced products and are instead researching which products have been rated the highest.
Analyzing voice search provides us with powerful signals that change the way we present results to consumers on our websites.
Andre Chandra: For simpler products that you purchase regularly, absolutely. But while we’re more comfortable these days to shop without the “feel” component, the “look” component is still crucial. And with online retailers providing more options than ever before (i.e., model, color, size, etc.), it may still be quite a challenge to replace shopping or browsing with a single voice command.
Dealerscope: Omnichannel Shopping – of course retailers want a consistent and seamless experience across all channels and devices for their customers — what might this entail in 2021?
Dean Sottile: Consistency is critical to building trust and attracting and retaining customers. That means that what a consumer sees on the website from an inventory, pricing and promotion standpoint MUST match their in-store experience exactly.
One of the best tools that we have available to help make that happen for our retailers is FlashTags. Available through our partner Retailer Web Services (RWS), FlashTags seamlessly syncs all of a product’s relevant information across the retailer’s website, in-store digital price tags and POS system so that everything remains current – all without manual entry. And even though in-store traffic has experienced some dips due to this year’s shelter-in-place and essential business orders, FlashTags adoption is growing because retailers recognize the value it brings and appreciate how easy it is to implement. And they want to be ready when in-person shopping rebounds.
What really sets our independent retailers apart from national chains, though, is the customer service they provide. So, in 2021, we expect even more of our members to adopt products like chat and video chat to deliver that high-touch, high-service, personalized experience that consumers expect when they shop local.
Andre Chandra: It is always best to execute an omnichannel marketing strategy: be available to consumers however they wish to interact. This may include Voice Commerce in your marketing mix. The caveat, of course, is to make the experience as seamless and pleasant as possible — if today’s best AI technology is still lacking in comprehension, it may backfire and leave your consumers frustrated. Be ready for a human to pick up where AI ends; this may include transferring inquiries to a live human operator to extend the customer journey.
Also, don’t count out traditional marketing methods. For example, people may be surprised to hear that direct mail is actually working like gangbusters… the stats show that while the average American gets 600 emails and thousands of digital ads per week, they only get 17 mail pieces a week. Direct mail response rates actually doubled in the last decade, both on house lists or cold prospect lists. If you want attention and retention, this is tough to beat.
So at the end of the day, marketers should only care about Return on Investment (ROI) and a good customer experience.
Dealerscope: Where are we (for 2021) with regard to AI and AR of late and what do retailers need to know about how these techs can (and will) enhance the eCommerce experience?
Dean Sottile: Our teams at Site on Time and RWS have been working closely with Google for years to incorporate AI tools into our digital marketing efforts. We leverage Google’s industry-leading AI tools every day to make sure we’re helping retailers target the right shopper with the right message at the right stage of their shopper journey.
AR, however, is still a new and emerging technology in our industry. Appliance manufacturers are starting to create and share AR content, but right now it’s focused more on the basics like “Will it fit?” or “How will this look in my home?” But there are definitely possibilities for this technology that expand across all our categories, whether it’s for a consumer who wants to see how large of a TV they can buy for their media room or a family trying to decide which sectional sofa will work best in their den. Adoption is low right now, but more tools are on the horizon, and we believe that this technology holds great promise.
Andre Chandra: Voice recognition is not the problem, but the bottleneck lies with the AI that comprehends our speech. Until that is significantly more robust, you’re risking exposing your brand to a bad customer experience. So our recommendation is always test, test, test. Include Voice Commerce as part of your marketing mix, but do not abandon the tried-and-true ways to convert prospects into customers.
Dealerscope: Indications are that mobile devices are expected to be a part of the total eCommerce sales by the end of 2021 – what does this mean to retailers?
Dean Sottile: We’ve been saying for years that retailers need to have a mobile-first mentality when it comes to their websites. What does that mean? Well, everything needs to look as good on mobile as it does on desktop and the website also needs to function just as well on mobile as it does on desktop. And we’ve made significant investments to ensure all of our tools — and, by extension, our members’ websites — are mobile-friendly.
Our members have seen a tremendous increase in traffic and purchases from mobile devices, and we expect that growth to continue. In fact, price shopping on mobile is one of the largest-growth areas we’ve seen this year. And it’s a gateway – even if customers purchase in store, they are still more likely than not to engage in online research at some point in their journey. So, it’s imperative that we meet those consumers where they are, whether that’s desktop, tablet or mobile phone, and deliver an exceptional experience that supports them as they move from the consideration phase to either making an online purchase or visiting a store in person.
Andre Chandra: Absolutely. E-tailers like Amazon have done a great job with their desktop and mobile apps to make a shopping experience easier than ever. While this is still difficult to do for custom products or services, most retail and e-tailers should beef up their mobile presence, yet be ready to pick up where automation and self-service ends. Much like Sears paid the price for slowly adopting eCommerce, retailers who fail to transition to a mobile-first strategy may face a similar fate. Americans are averaging more time on their mobile devices than ever before, reaching 5.4 hours of daily use, a stat that continues to grow every year. This isn’t just mindless scrolling or YouTube binging either; much of the time is spent shopping. In 2019 four out of five online shoppers made about 50% of their purchases on their mobile devices and 62% of those same shoppers report that they’re “less likely” to give a retailer a second chance after a poor mobile experience.
But that’s all about customer experience, and does not mean that marketing should be confined to mobile platforms only… we are firm believers in omni-channel marketing: be available to consumers however they wish to interact.
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