As part of my dissertation for my Master’s in Digital Marketing at King’s College, I thought it would be interesting to find out if voice assistants like Alexa can impact a consumer’s decision while buying fast moving consumer goods (FMCG).

Is Alexa a salesperson?

The consumer is fickle and is prone to making impulsive purchase decisions. Could we be very close to a time where we will be making purchase decisions spontaneously just by asking Alexa in the bathroom to buy a product as soon as we realise our toothpaste or toilet paper is running out?

There are several factors that could impact a consumer’s purchase decision at this point. Based on my research I propose the three most influential methods via which a voice assistant could influence a purchase decision.

Ways in which a voice assistant can influence a purchase decision for FMCG products

1. Alexa Skill

A voice application, also known as a Skill on Amazon’s Alexa, is similar to an application on a smartphone. A few FMCG brands have created voice applications that aim to make information more readily available to consumers in order to simplify and expedite their daily tasks.

A great use case would be Unilever’s Receipedia Skill which provides recipes while cooking. This application helps to provide a step-by-step cooking guide which saves the effort of the consumer while cooking and removes the problem of turning pages with messy hands. However, though it is Unilever’s Skill, it is not extremely evident – they don’t advertise their brand or promote Unilever products.

The Ariel Skill, on the other hand, constantly repeats its brand and product name while providing hundreds of solutions to remove stains. Simply tell Alexa I have a coffee stain and it would provide a step by step solution to remove it. Before and after providing the solution, the brand name is prominently mentioned in a way that the listener cannot miss it.

The timeliness of the brand being able to help the consumer during a crisis not only helps the brand to remain in the consumer’s evoked set, but also helps develop a sense of reciprocity towards the brand.

In my academic work, I tested this using 51 participants who interacted with the Ariel application. Participants were also asked to virtually buy several FMCG products in a second experiment, with one of them being a detergent. The participants were not aware of the fact that both the experiments were actually linked. Interestingly, the results showed 62.5% of the participants selected Ariel’s detergent and 74.5% suggested that they see themselves using this application regularly or very often.

Although there are several other factors that could be explain the selection of this brand, the relevance of Ariel’s skill cannot be ignored. This could lead a consumer to purchase the Arial brand via voice, the website or a brick-and-mortar store. Hence, the Skills channel may be one way that voice assistants can impact a consumer’s purchase decision.

2. Recommendation of brands by voice assistant

The second way a voice assistant could influence a consumer’s decision is when Alexa recommends a product to the consumer.

A great use case, as previously mentioned, could be that you are in the bathroom and realize that you need to order toilet paper. Here, one could directly ask Alexa to buy toilet paper, in which case Alexa will recommend a brand.

For those who do not care for a particular brand of toilet paper, it is highly possible that they may be influenced by Alexa’s recommendations as it helps the brand to remain in the consumers evoked set. Considering the anthropomorphic nature of voice assistants like Alexa there is some research that suggests that this recommendation could enhance brand affinity.

However, in my research I came across two reasons Alexa’s recommendations may not yet have a considerable impact on the consumers purchase decision.

Elongated process

Currently, if you would like to purchase a product from Amazon via Alexa it’s not as easy as it sounds. Unfortunately, you cannot just ask Alexa to buy a specific product. Although one could do this prior to June 2019, Amazon has since lengthened the process. In spite of Amazon always being pro-convenience, in this case it seems that they have taken a step backwards.

When one asks Alexa to buy toothpaste, Alexa indeed recommends one brand after which the product category is displayed in the shopping cart on the Amazon website. This becomes a website purchase again, because the customer has to make a final decision when checking out, from four recommended brands, including the initial brand recommended by Alexa (see an example below with air freshener).

The greater the time taken between the user asking Alexa to buy a specific product and eventually checking out of the cart could also make the consumer forget the product recommended by Alexa.

The results of my research suggested that participants were not completely convinced with this process of voice shopping and a low percentage of participants bought the product initially recommended by Alexa. This perhaps shows consumers will most likely not be influenced by Alexa’s product recommendations as of yet.

Of course, there are some caveats here. Alexa’s product choice is based on an algorithm which aims to provide the most suitable product. If Amazon decides to eventually use some sort of advertising experience in cart, where one or more products are clearly promoted, and makes the consumer choose a brand, this could seem like a step backward for voice technology as the consumer cannot simply rely on Alexa to choose.

Though it may be in Amazon’s interest to ultimately create a bidding war amongst FMCG advertisers, I’m unsure if visibility in the cart would be logical – the consumer needs to start getting used to purchasing products purely through voice and not via the cart on a website.

I feel this is a new shopping process that Amazon needs to get the customer accustomed to if they eventually want to have a search engine marketing type model. Amazon first needs to allow customers to buy purely using their voice.

3. Alexa’s repurchase algorithm

If you buy an item like a Johnson & Johnson shampoo on the Amazon website and then ask Alexa to buy a shampoo the next month, then Alexa will stick with the same product. It would directly add the brand previously purchased to your Amazon cart. Considering that the purchase is for an FMCG product which is low involvement, the consumer more often than not would be okay with this re-order, unless they had had an extremely disastrous experience.

The results of my research suggested a high majority (74.51%) of participants said that they were highly likely or moderately likely to go ahead with the re-order when Alexa directly added it into their cart. This suggests the virtual assistant has had a big influence on the consumer to stick with the same brand.

In conclusion

A useful voice application and Alexa’s repurchase algorithm could certainly impact a consumer’s decision.

Here are a few suggestions that I feel could drastically impact the voice-first industry:

  • Reduce the friction in the voice shopping process – let the customer buy a product by just using their voice.
  • A useful voice application to the customer can go a long way to keep the brand in the evoked set and create a sense of brand loyalty.
  • Give virtual assistants an identity, even a face, to increase anthropomorphic features and increase affinity.

As of yet it can be seen that there are lot of hurdles that this technology would need to overcome before it can be used to the fullest of its potential. However, personally I see a future where most consumers would start to develop a relationship with at least one virtual assistant within the next decade. I also feel the consumer’s first point of interaction with a brand, in years to come, could be the brand’s virtual assistant. Brands therefore need to consider their personality in this context.

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