Styled by Robots

January 11, 2019
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Disruptive Tech

In 1888, Richard Sears used a printed mailer to market his growing watch and jewelry business.

A company built on overstock, Sears would soon learn that the time was right for his mail order business and, in just a few short years, the Chicago businessman would become a name known in nearly every household in America.

Over a century later, the once minted Sears, Roebuck and Company would find itself filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following suit behind the laundry list of other retail giants that have fallen victim to changing times.

As Sears himself knew, retail is a marketspace driven by convenience. In 2017, findings from a study published by the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that the average American works 42 hours per week.  

Evolving the Retail Space

As more Americans work longer hours in cities with immobilizing traffic, the way in which they purchase goods is inevitably evolving in order to meet the needs of an ‘on-the-go’ society.

Such evolution includes emerging technologies in e-commerce that have created entirely new selling spaces thanks to advances in speech recognition software and its integration into the daily lives of smartphone users.

Although voice recognition technology is still in its infancy, the impact that it has already had on the retail sector is fascinating and can be examined from two different angles: the consumer experience and, on the business side, customer acquisition through hyper-personalized recommendations gained through the software’s tracked purchase history.

As a tool for consumers, voice recognition software allows shoppers to make online purchases via voice command, freeing up precious time wasted on clicking through retail web pages or filling out lengthy purchase forms.  

“We wanted to remove friction for our customers—and the most natural means was voice,” Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s head scientist for Alexa, told Fortune last year. “It’s not merely a search engine with a bunch of results that says, ‘Choose one.’ It tells you the answer.”

But how many people would actually prefer to task a robot with their shopping? The answer is: a lot, actually.

According to findings published in Walker Sand’s 2017 Future of Retail report, approximately one in five Americans have made a purchase with the help of a voice-controlled “intelligent assistant,” such as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, and another 33 percent plan to do so in the near future.

In fact, purchases made through voice-controlled devices are projected to leap from $2 billion to $40 billion by 2022, according to a recent study from OC&C Strategy Consultants, and Google has already added products from retail giants such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Walgreens and Whole Foods to its Google Home device.


And it's not just limited to online retailers. Brick-and-mortar shopping can also be made more efficient through voice-activated software.

“Say a shopper is in a department store. If that shopper has a question, they can ask a voice-activated device. This can make for a new type of customer experience and a new type of customer relationship with the store itself. It will make the experience easier and more efficient for shoppers,” says Arielle Einhorn, a Senior Research Analyst at Jones Lang LaSalle Investments.  

Other retailers are integrating voice technology in their dressing rooms: Last year, H&M launched a voice activated smart mirror that offers customers personalized styling recommendations in its Times Square store. From there, the customer can view similar items or select coordinating accessories directly from their dressing room. After that, any items of interest can be purchased through the mirror by scanning a QR code.

Purchases made through voice-controlled devices are projected to leap from $2 billion to $40 billion by 2022.


But like with any new technology, there is always a learning curve and, while remote voice shopping works well for tasks like grocery or office supply purchasing, questions of how offsite voice ordering will fare for fashion retailers remain unclear.

Those questions, however, may be answered soon: In a twist of irony, UK retailer Argos began trialing their voice-controlled shopping service last year, giving customers the option to use a smart home speaker to order fashion or homeware items directly from their mail order catalog.

Despite still being in its blue sky phase, voice controlled technology has the opportunity to streamline the way consumers purchase goods in the same way e-commerce has transformed the retail landscape and, although these shifts may feel tenuous today, automation will leave its lasting impact on society—let’s just hope Alexa comes with a good sense of style.

By GABRIELLA BOCK | Contributing Writer

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