25 July 2024, 11:05
By Furniture News Jun 14, 2021

Nils Zündorf on voice commerce and the furniture industry

You’ll find a voice assistant in at least one in every five UK homes, and the chances are it’ll be Amazon’s Alexa – but having it play a song or dim the lights is just the beginning, says Nils Zündorf, CEO of Amazon agency, factor-a, who answers Furniture News' questions about the potential role of voice commerce in the furniture industry … 

What is voice commerce?

Voice commerce is a marketing and sales channel created by the increasing spread of voice assistants. On the one hand, it creates the possibility to sell products via voice command, and on the other it opens up a new touchpoint in the customer journey for branding, servicing and marketing. 

Furniture tends to be a considered purchase – how does that suit the fast, immediate nature of voice commerce?

The unique advantage for furniture is that it’s in the home category. If big manufacturers can integrate smart home appliances into their furniture pieces, voice command could make a huge difference. 

Either way, retailers can use smart speakers to create more value and add services, without even integrating smart appliances. For example, a furniture manufacturer could offer vocalised instructions to help customers assemble a piece of furniture.

Are furniture businesses already employing this technology?

Many businesses are taking advantage of Google Business. This way they can be found through voice search. This should be the first step in the voice journey of any retailer – only if you can be found, will you stay relevant. 

Additionally, many smart home retailers have their own Alexa skill, making their products voice-command applicable. For example, IKEA has integrated a system which enables control over their lights, and the German platform moebel.de has their own skill which lets consumers search for discounts via voice. 

Consumers using voice search want two things – the answer, and fast. If your business can deliver both — whether it’s a general query or a ‘furniture showroom near me’ local search — then there’s a growing section of consumers you may be able to target. And since this trend is still fairly new, you have a strong chance of knocking out your competition.

What is the potential of the technology from a marketing perspective?

By positioning Alexa appliances in consumers’ kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms, a new gateway to customers has been created. Voice assistants offer the opportunity to establish and integrate a company into the consumer’s everyday life. This changes the way brands and consumers interact with each other. Therefore, it won’t be a classic sales channel, like online or stationary retail. 

A good example of the power of ‘voice’ and what’s possible is podcasts. Recommendations of films, books or even products by podcast moderators are just some examples. Various retailers and brands run their own podcasts and are thus expanding their expertise. 

It’s all about the additional services, not about imitating the shopping experience of other channels. For example, a bicycle dealer could offer information on the right chain grease, the perfect seating positions or the advantages of different types of gears, on a podcast or simply in an audio file. As with ‘sponsored posts’, customers then link the information with the brand and attribute more expertise to it. This increases awareness, which in turn can lead to more sales.

What else can Amazon offer retailers? What are the drawbacks, and how can retailers make the most of being part of that ecosystem?

According to ecommerceDB, Amazon is the biggest online retailer for furniture and appliances, with net sales in 2020 amounting to $2b. Even if purchases are not directly made via the platform, Amazon has a significant influence on the purchase decision. 

According to an IFH study, 61% of consumers in the home and furnishing segment spot their desired product on Amazon before buying online, and 23% before making an in-store purchase, and this was as early as 2019. As a result, brands and products that are not visible to potential customers on the platform often aren’t noticed by the buyer. 

Amazon’s success is largely due to overcoming one of the biggest challenges in the homeware industry – logistics. Amazon Prime’s robust infrastructure provides the seamless, fast delivery that today’s customer demands. Thanks to free returns, shoppers are more willing to spend higher sums on larger items without having to see them in person before purchasing. This is good news for manufacturers who are currently considering joining Amazon – they can benefit from Amazon’s infrastructure and service.

As an Alexa user myself, I’m aware of the frustrations some people have with the devices. What needs to change before the barriers to voice commerce are truly removed?

The biggest change has already happened – people are spending more time at home due to the pandemic. Instead of being on the go and relying on mobile devices for purchases, we saw an increase in voice assistant use. Additionally, Amazon used its sales days – specifically Prime Day – to push even more smart speakers into the market. 

The technology is evolving and getting better with use. Frustrations are understandable, but Amazon wouldn’t be Amazon if it wasn’t working hard to fix this problem. For example, the latest update brought a more detailed noise distinction for Amazon Guard, so the smart device can track noises like glass breaking.

I’m also aware that I’m probably not using my Alexa to its full potential. Can you share any voice shopping tips, from a user POV?

Alexa Skills are great! These are voice-driven capabilities for devices, like playing music and answering questions … apps, basically. And there are a lot of options to choose from. Aside from smart home controls (which, by the way, some big furniture retailers already offer), there are apps that tell you the daily news, weather apps, stain-removing wikis, recipe sites and so many others. These are not shopping tips, but general helpers.

For example, some supermarkets have Alexa skills that allow customers to add products to their shopping lists and track orders while they’re cooking. This provides an excellent user experience and makes the process of shopping online much simpler.

For voice shopping, my tip would be to use it for refilling or rebuying products that you have already purchased via Amazon – for example, dishwasher tabs or other refillables that you’ve previously ordered. Your account, and therefore your smart device, has an understanding of your preferences, and can use these to order ‘the right thing’. This also works for food delivery.

How might an independent retailer start to use voice commerce? What route should they take, and what are the likely obstacles – do they need to be fully operational online first?

A retailer should definitely be functioning online and be invested in SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). SEO is the basis for being found anywhere in the online world. However, for voice commerce, you need to tweak your keywords a little. Due to the more conversational nature of voice searches, long-tail keywords are more important than ever (long-tail keywords are more specific than standard keywords, which means that they usually have lower traffic volume, but also less competition). 

If you can be found online, you are already one step ahead. Google My Business allows you to provide important information about your company to Google, including opening hours, website, location, and reviews. Even though Google is not the default for every system, it is still the one where you should focus most of your efforts. However, check your own site’s data as well as the trends of your target demographic to determine your focus. 

Using voice commerce as an independent sales channel would be too much to ask from a single retailer. Depending on their size, it could be an idea to set up an audio format with information, or register a service for Alexa Skills. 

The challenge here is to offer customers a skill with real added value. For instance, a make-up tutorial may make sense as a video, but it is probably useless as an auditory Alexa Skill. If you’re comfortable with software development, you can create your own Alexa Skills or hire someone to make them for you. Amazon also provides very detailed documents and tutorials for creating Alexa Skills.

This article was published in the May 2021 issue of Furniture News magazine.

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