With voice retail expected to reach $40 billion in value over the next three years, what impact will this technology have on the luxury industry should it become a mainstream feature of e-commerce?

The future of retail is voice, according to numerous reports citing it as next digital revolution in the industry, reason being that as people increasingly use voice search assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, the technology will be adopted more widely by companies and brands to provide a range of services that enhance a customer’s omnichannel experience.

Voice shopping (whereby a purchase is made through voice technology) is expected to reach $40 billion (€36.1 billion) by 2022 in the United States and the United Kingdom, up from $2 billion (€1.8 billion) in 2018, according to a report published in February last year by consultancy firm OC & C Strategy Consultants.

The use of digital voice assistants like Alexa or Siri is also expected to reach 8 billion over the next five years, up from an estimated 2.5 billion at the end of 2018, according to a study from market research firm Juniper. So, it comes as no surprise that an increasing number of big brands like Estée Lauder, Walmart and Domino’s are experimenting with the technology as a new way of connecting with their consumer.

Take Estée Lauder’s partnership with Google. The beauty and skincare giant set up a chat experience through Google’s voice-activated Home device, to give its customers a “personalised one-on-one conversation” helping them to customise their nightly skincare routine. Named “Liv”, users can activate the service by asking their Home device “Hey, Google, can I talk to Liv at Estée Lauder” to start up the conversation, where they are asked a series of questions to determine what nightly skincare is recommended and then ask Google for a nearby store to get a free facial or sample of its products.

Estée Lauder’s partnership with Google. Photo: Courtesy.

Partnerships like this are just in the early stages, dependent on the current state of technology and its capabilities, but it is easy to imagine demand and use for these types of services expanding in the future across a number of different industries as the technology develops.

At present, the capabilities of voice assistants are a little limited. “The elements that we are seeing are things that are suited to repeat purchases,” said James Moar, lead analyst at Juniper Research. “(These) are things that you almost don’t need to think about buying. Like milk or Tide (laundry) pods. It’s those kinds of consumables that just kind of need restocking.”

Still, many remain optimistic about voice technology’s potential to reshape the consumer experience in some way or another. According to forecasts from research firm Forrester,  around 134.8 million new smart speakers are expected to be installed in the US over the next five years. And while it was reported that only 2 percent of Amazon’s sales came from voice, there is no doubt that how consumers use voice technology for search is growing, even if that isn’t translating into sales at the moment.

As the market matures and expands beyond smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo and becomes more connected to include more visual components like a smart display, luxury companies and brands could begin to experiment with voice retail as a way to enhance their e-commerce offerings and overall omnichannel experience.

“We think that when you have smart displays becoming more common, where you can just kind of talk through and say ‘show me this, show me that, show me the other’, and it will literally be able to bring it up on a display or something, or you can speak to a smart TV and the assistant understands that you’re talking to a TV and need to actually see the thing you are buying, that’s where we think that it will become its own thing for luxury purchases.”

“If you can start getting voice assistant set-ups that will enable visual displays, then you can have interesting and very variable and customisable voice experiences, right the way across the industries,” he added. “But we are not quite there yet, in terms of that being a particular technology in common usage. I would kind of say that is probably two to three years away.”

“It could work because I think the luxury experience is also about emotion and voice is definitely something that is emotional,” said Marc-Oliver Peyer, senior digital marketing manager at DLG (Digital Luxury Group). “And depending on the experience that you are able to provide, voice can be really immersive.”

“Imagine you are in a virtual reality environment or augmented reality environment, where your hands are busy doing something,” Peyer continued. “Maybe you can experience seeing a fashion show and you can say, ‘oh I like this’ or ‘what is this?’ In this type of experience, you are not being interrupted, so you have an experience in something where voice is less interruptive than a touch or a click interface would be.”

However, with the technology still in its infancy, there are a number of challenges that arise when it comes to considering voice for the luxury industry. Accuracy, privacy and brand bias are some the issues that come to mind and have been reported widely.  But the potential for the technology to transform some elements in the luxury experience exist, albeit mostly from a back-end perspective like data management and customer relationship management come into place as the use cases for highly personalised experiences are slim to none.

“As soon as you want something more personalised, I think the technology is not there yet and will not be able to provide you with really personalised information. I think that’s the challenge,” said Peyer.

“It’s difficult to see where the kind of synergy of the personalised, individualised luxury service matches with voice assistants at the moment,” said Moar. “Simply because the artificial intelligence isn’t that personal at this stage. In order to have a fully personalised individual feeling experience, that you would expect with luxury retail, I think for starters the natural language programming needs to be one step up.”

Whether or not voice will replace the need for human interaction in the omnichannel experience remains to be seen, however when considering the luxury space, this seems unlikely.

“The biggest value at the moment is in the kind of priming stages and beginning the customer journey at home through a voice assistant,” Moar added. “And then potentially picking it up somewhere else where it can be carried on and developed with human interaction or just in a more appropriate setting.”

It’s a view shared by Peyer. “You have a lot of things to consider, because also at the moment, most brands don’t have a vocal signature. It’s true that if you think about voice, you need to think also about conversation,” said Peyer. You will never buy any product just by giving orders, so to speak. You will never be so precise in what you say that the machine will know exactly what you want. You need to have feedback from the machine, and for the moment, of course, the voices are getting less and less metallic and robotic, but for luxury brands to have a vocal signature that is very robotic, I think it doesn’t work.”

Looking forward, Moar and Peyer both see potential for luxury brands to adopt voice technology in a variety of different functions, but remain sceptical towards its potential to reshape the luxury experience.

“I definitely see luxury brands getting onboard, for part of their e-commerce platform and using voice as an outlet there, even if it’s just a case of dipping toes in the water.” said Moar. “It should be a relatively low overhead thing to upkeep once it’s there. And it’s another potential sales channel so it’s that able from that perspective at the very least.

“I would not say reshape,” said Peyer. “It can be part of a whole, but do not consider voice in itself. Ten years ago, when you had the first touch interface, when Apple introduced the new iPhone as a touchscreen to reshape the luxury experience, I think looking back, we cannot say that touch has shaped totally the luxury experience.

“It’s the same kind question. Introducing a new technology,” Peyer added. “Of course, voice, maybe with a VR experience, can make it more immersive, it’s more emotional and it’s more looking at the customer experience that you want to provide.”


About the author

Limei Hoang

Editor, Luxury Society

Limei Hoang is an editor at Luxury Society, based in Geneva. Limei was formerly an associate editor at the Business of Fashion in London. Previously, she spent six years working at Reuters, and has also worked for BBC, The Independent and New Statesman.