Amazon has been rolling out new Alexa features to persuade shoppers to rely on the voice assistant during the holiday rush.
Alexa is reliable for customers' orders and re-orders for household replenishables like dog food, dish soap, or garbage bags. But it's tough to convince shoppers to buy stuff if they can't see it or touch it.
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"If I need a sweater — even if I have a pretty specific idea of what I want in a sweater— it would be virtually impossible for me to ensure that I'm going to get the right one ordering it through an Alexa without a screen," said Kenneth Cassar, principal analyst at Rakuten Intelligence.
Amazon (AMZN) is working to address that issue. In recent months, Amazon has unveiled a series of tools on Alexa, including integrating Alexa with your smartphone. Alexa-enabled speakers can now serve up product choices straight to your phones with a link to review.
"It's not voice or screen. It's both working seamlessly together to create convenience for the customer," said Chuck Moore, vice president of Alexa Shopping, in his first interview since taking the role earlier this year. Moore, a veteran Amazon executive, previously led Kindle.
Amazon is also making Alexa more responsive to shoppers trying to discover products through their voice speakers or customers who want to learn more about brands.
Alexa can now answer millions of questions customers might have about buying gifts, like which underwater digital camera is best, or specific questions. You can ask Alexa whether a Fitbit is waterproof, for example.
Amazon has expanded Alexa's question-and-answer capabilities. It recently opened up Alexa to Amazon's online customer review base, so the voice assistant can ask for help when a customer asks a question it can't answer right away. Alexa crowd-sources the question, and notifies shoppers when it discovers an answer.
"We've got tens of thousands of questions being answered that way," Moore said. "She'll be adding to her knowledge base as she goes."
Because voice shopping is unlike browsing on the web or scrolling through your iPhone to find products, responding on the fly to new interactions is the biggest obstacle Alexa has to overcome.
"When you have a natural human interface like Alexa has, it becomes wide open," Moore said. "It does create a lot of very rapid turns that we need to do with scientists, engineers, and product designers to really be watching what customers do and quickly adjusting."
Amazon is updating Alexa to improve everyday purchases at Whole Foods too. Amazon has integrated the grocery store into Alexa through a feature that allows customers to add items to their Whole Foods cart and ask Alexa for recipes. Once they're ready to check out, they can say, "Alexa, check out," and Alexa will send a link to their phones for delivery or pickup options. Customers can also ask Alexa for deals available to Prime members at Whole Foods.
"The key point is that Alexa is learning your preferences," Moore said. "You can just say, 'Alexa, add milk to my Whole Foods cart,' and Alexa remembers your prior choice."
"We're focused on making Alexa helpful to organize their needs and to get their shopping done more quickly," he added.
Voice shopping is in its early stages, and Amazon is still learning how customers want to use their voice-powered speakers.
A customer adoption curve for buying products through voice should be expected, Cassar said. He likened shopping through Alexa today to reluctance buying off computers or cell phones during their initial days.
Amazon's team is building a pool of customer interactions with Alexa-enabled Echo devices, microwaves, and wall clocks in their homes, and experimenting different ways to deploy the voice assistant.
Although Echo devices have dominated the voice speaker market since their debut in 2014, they're mainly used as alarm clocks, to check the weather, or listen to news, music, and podcasts. Only about 2% of people that use Alexa have made a purchase off them this year, the website The Information reported in August.
Moore disputed the data. "We have millions of customers using Alexa for shopping across a wide variety of products," he said. "We've been pleased with where we're getting in terms of customer engagement."