Development of voice-recognition technology is shifting into high gear as contactless methods gain importance during the pandemic. MasterCard announced it is rolling out voice-tech kiosks for touchless ordering and payment while others focus on a wide range of retail services.
In a unique collaboration with SoundHound, MasterCard says it will develop voice-enabled solutions that deliver low-touch, high-engagement kiosks for quick service restaurants. Signing on with MasterCard as pilot clients are Circle K, Dunkin’ and White Castle.
The MasterCard announcement is just the tip of the iceberg in the rapidly evolving world of voice-technology, which is being kicked into high gear thanks to rising customer safety concerns during the pandemic.
Other recent voice-tech announcements have been made by Walmart, Sam’s Club, 1-800-FLOWERS, Carrerfour, ExxonMobile, 7-Eleven and Giant Eagle. (See details below.)
Despite the momentum for voice-tech in retail, there are legitimate concerns over customer privacy and premature adoption of an emerging technology that may or may not be ready for prime time.
Can You Hear Me Now?
A recent debate on RetailWire about the future of voice tech exposed a sharp divide among retail experts assessing its current value in the marketplace.
Experts in opposition to voice-tech say it is an early-stage technology that many customers find “annoying” rather than quick and intuitive. There is also a high rate of “misunderstanding” voice commands, which makes it “more trouble than it is worth.” Additionally, retailers are likely to encounter problems with “noisy backgrounds” and customers who speak with “heavy accents.”
To get the inside scoop about the future of voice-tech in retail I spoke with Jon Stine, executive director of the Open Voice Network (OVN). (Full disclosure: I am an advocate of voice-tech in retail and a voluntary ambassador for OVN.)
Stine points out that while we are seeing an uptick in customer-facing voice initiatives today, the most promising place where voice tech can deliver measurable results is in retail operations.
“The operations side of retail is where I am seeing the strongest benefits in retail today,” says Stine. “We are seeing it used by employees to guide pick and pack in stores, customer fulfillment, pickup at curb, and BOPIS. These are all essential services right now, but how do you do it? Do you use clipboards, mobile devices and touchscreens? These are all shared devices. Voice technology uses personal microphones and ear buds and eliminates shared human contact among employees.”
Stine notes that “humans can speak three times faster than we can type and simple commands can be used to navigate through voice messages or screens, such as up, down, left and right.”
The question about whether voice tech is ready for customer-facing devices is highly relevant to Stine, because he believes it is possible to drive quantifiable value in highly defined locations today, such as menu ordering and payment.
However, a more important issue for Stine is the “use of voice as an interface, as an entry into systems and software.” And not just in a few simple, specific cases, but as an everyday tool that revolutionizes how we deliver computer-based services, management, and information.
It is the latter area where the pioneering work of OVN primarily takes place. OVN is a directed-fund of the Linux Foundation, which includes 150 enterprise users and practitioners from 12 nations. One of OVN’s busiest work groups reviews voice assistant architectures to identify common components and interfaces seeking to find opportunities for standardization and innovation.
Another important OVN work group advocates for voice-specific issues related to consumer and commercial privacy. A new work group, according to Stine, “is looking into the process of creating a global voice registry, a sort of domain name system (DNS) to safeguard names used in a billion-end-point world.”
The reason for creating this work group, according to Stine, is that “right now there are no rules.” For example, will Target own the Target voice interface name if it creates one? Maybe in the U.S., but how about worldwide?
For any retailer or vendor who is interested in joining this work group or is interested in supporting OVN in other ways, reach out to Stine at [email protected].
Voice Tech in Retail Today
As noted, voice tech is rolling out at a rapid rate in retail. Here are significant retailer use cases that have recently been announced:
- Domnino’s Pizza uses voice tech in its new Intelligent Call Manager solution to provide personalized support for customers. This enables customers to make orders and track delivery status at more than 6,000 locations in the U.S.
- First deployed at Sam’s Club in 2019, the Ask Sam voice assistant app was recently adopted for use by Walmart. Voice technology enables store associates to get information about product locations, pricing, and store sales. They can also check email and access information about Covid-19 guidance.
- Both 1-800-Flowers.com and Walmart now enable customers to make voice purchases through Amazon Alexa.
- Carrefour has launched a voice-based e-commerce experience using Google Assistant. The technology enables users to create a shopping list using voice commands and then pay for the items on the Carrefour app.
- Car drivers will be able to pay for fuel at Exxon and Mobile gas stations using voice technology from Alexa-enabled vehicles, Echo Auto, and other Alexa-enabled mobile devices. Technology from Fiserv will activate the pump and be available at more than 11,500 Exxon and Mobile stations.
- Giant Eagle is now offering Amazon Alexa capabilities that allow customers to set drug prescription reminders and request refills.
- 7-Eleven is piloting a fuel loyalty program in Florida, Texas and Virginia that enables contactless payment using Siri voice-command shortcuts. For payment, customers will be able to use the 7Rewards loyalty program, Google Pay or Apple Pay mobile wallets.
Voice-tech initiatives are proliferating in retail today and picking up momentum as the trend toward pandemic-inspired, contactless retailing accelerates its spread.