Study tempers hopes of 'voice assistant' retail boom

Voice commerce is poised to become a crucial consumer touchpoint over the next couple of years as Covid‐19 forces us to shop from home.

But millions of consumers could end up giving ‘shopping-with-Alexa’ a miss unless  retailers improve the buying experience, according to new research published this week by Liverpool Business School.

“Vocal assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant are empowered by tools that allow consumers to make purchases with their mediation and assistance,” explains Dr Vito Tassiello, senior lecturer in marketing.

“This takes consumers into a para-social environment - half physical and half digital – as opposed to a shop or an online store.

“The problems start when the consumer doesn’t have enough stimulus and control to buy because he’s at home, talking to a robot and needs a leap of faith to make his order.”

Low intervention products

Although voice commerce is on the rise, with sales expected to reach $40 billion by 2022 in the United States alone, the range of products bought is still limited.

“It’s almost all low intervention products – by which we mean things that are familiar, regularly consumed staples, such as pizzas, batteries, cleaning products and beer,” adds Vito.

“The challenge will be creating the right conditions for me or you to feel in control of a purchase of high intervention products, that’s to say, more complex, more expensive purchases.”

Vito and his colleagues Jack Tillotson and Alexandra Rome ran three experiments where a total of 700 consumers, all regular Alexa users, were asked to purchase either a low-involvement product (e.g., pizza) or a high involvement product (e.g. bottle of champagne) with the mediation of a vocal assistant.

Triple experiment

The first experiment considered people’s willingness to buy low-involvement products (basic pizza, juice) versus high-involvement (restaurant food, champagne, birthday cake), and found that respondents, were on average 15% more likely to only buy the pizza or juice.

In the second the third experiments, the researchers primed the respondents with ‘psychological power’ scenarios, to simulate the behaviour of being in control, but the purchase pattern was similar, leading the researchers to conclude that no matter how confident the customer, the sales mechanisms were not conducive to buy complex products.

“When a consumer interacts with Alexa - and there is no visual stimulus of the product, it is difficult for him or her to feel in control. You may make purchases where there is certainty but you will only make impulse purchases for low-cost products,” explained Dr Tassiello.

So what should retailers do?

“There is clear potential to market low-involvement products via voice assistants, but it appears that companies that wish to market more complex products should think about how they afford the consumer a greater feeling of control, and that could be by  providing a higher level of description of their product.”

The research: ‘Alexa, order me a pizza!”: The mediating role of psychological power in the consumer–voice assistant interaction’ is published in Psychology and Marketing and supported by the QR Fund at Liverpool John Moores University.


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