Zero UI and the Future of Online Retail

By Hugh Fletcher

If 2017 was the year that the world woke up to Zero UI (User Interface), or screenless, devices, 2018 has certainly solidified the status of voice assistants as the trend that will have the biggest impact on retailers and shoppers. Only recently, eMarketer predicted that an astonishing 76.5 million ‘smart speakers’ would be in operation by 2020.

Shoppers are clearly becoming more accustomed to devices that can do everything from telling them the weather to ordering their weekly groceries. Amazon and Google were the first two to pioneer this idea in households, as shoppers increasingly adopt the Echo and Home devices.

Meanwhile, companies are beginning to invest in voice with Virgin Trains — the latest to sell its products through Amazon’s Alexa. By allowing customers to book directly using just their voice, The Trainline has taken the next step in creating a seamless customer experience.

As the use of speech to shop becomes common, what can brands do to ensure they are preparing for this new way of shopping?

Voice technology isn’t new – we’ve been using it for longer than we think

It’s easy to forget that we have all been using voice in our technology for much longer than just a year: Siri and, more recently, Bixby. It was applied to phones successfully because there is worth in the speed and ease that it can source information. The same goes for retail and Zero UI.

Retail is all about convenience – it’s exactly why online shopping took off rapidly. Shoppers want a service that is easy to use, smart, and ultimately gets the product delivered to their home as quickly as possible. Zero UI is simply the next step in that convenience cycle, removing the friction of the screen; you’re no longer required to turn on your laptop or type on your phone – you can talk directly to your machine instead.

Removing friction from customer experiences is something that the tech innovators, particularly Amazon, have focused on. So, it’s no surprise that they’re at the forefront of this voice revolution.

iPhone with Siri

For any idea to thrive in retail, it has to make the shopping experience easier for the customer. Zero UI does that and more – but it isn’t only about voice; that’s just the beginning. It will soon be followed by other Zero UI interfaces like gestures and the brain-computer interface (BCI). The idea of connecting computers and the human brain no longer seems far-fetched in a world where Facebook is already using the technology for typing, Nissan is using it for driving cars, and Elon Musk is trying to take us to Mars.

What Zero UI also does is bring the search and purchase elements of the customer journey much closer and thus makes them quicker.

If shoppers continue to use voice, will they accept programmatically driven purchases?

Without being consciously aware, customers’ use of voice is driving them towards the automated purchasing of goods based on pre-determined preferences. And shoppers are already displaying an appetite for it: a study from Salmon showed that 57% of customers will be ready for automated shopping by 2019.

The same study unsurprisingly found that Zero UI is a thriving system of commerce, benefitting from being time saving, money saving, and convenient.

Much like Siri, a version of the concept has already been used: Brita and Amazon teamed up to launch a Wi-Fi water filter that automatically reordered filters via Amazon Dash.

Its success is dependent on shoppers’ comfort with the idea. Using voice is one thing, but relying on a robot to order your goods is another. Would you trust a machine with your payment details? Would you allow it to purchase a shirt based on previous purchasing habits? These are all questions that retailers should be asking themselves today. But let’s not forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of buying clothes or banking online seemed alien and unlikely.

Don’t submit to Amazon’s will – look at them for inspiration

There’s no denying that Amazon has led the trend of Zero UI into mainstream retail. The introduction of Amazon Echo was questioned at first, but all reservations are progressively shifting away as shoppers realise its benefits. However, as the Amazon Echo becomes the go-to device, brands must overcome another challenge – being pushed further away from their customers. Sure, their products might still be purchased, but via a third party whose analysis of data, own-brand strategy, and commitment to revenue is a risk for all brands.

Amazon Echo

The online giant is boldly looking to secure a larger slice of the sector by connecting customers to its vast online marketplace. Why purchase a new pair of trainers on Nike or Adidas’ website when Amazon has both, and offers innovative services like the Echo and the Dash, not to mention a much quicker delivery? Amazon is making it a no-brainer for shoppers!

Amazon’s dominance is a reflection of the desire for innovation in every step of the retail conversation. There is an argument to be made that certain high street brands faltered because online was a more innovative option at the time. Zero UI is the same. We found that 60% of shoppers want a retailer to be more digitally innovative.

Crucially, what every brand and retailer must effectively learn is that innovation isn’t exclusive to the likes of Amazon. It’s not just about the name. It’s about the speed and consistency of the service. Amazon is currently the name on everyone’s lips, but that can change.

Zero UI is the future, but the future will continue to evolve

Is this the year Zero UI becomes fully mainstream? It’s hard to tell right now, but there is a strong argument to be made that Zero UI is much more than just a buzzword. Amazon’s investment in voice is one strong signifier. Shoppers’ rapid adoption is another. As long as Zero UI continues to satiate customers’ desire for convenience and speed, it will succeed.

One thing that is guaranteed is that as Zero UI becomes prominent, brands and retailers cannot afford to ignore the need to change, innovate, and evolve. Standing still is only going to paralyse you. And once you’re paralysed, a competitor will not hesitate to pounce on the opportunity to lock in your customers, and lock you out.

By Hugh Fletcher, Global Head of Consultancy and Innovation, Salmon

Download our ‘Commerce Futures 2018’ report for exclusive insight on the key trends businesses need to know about, and start planning for.

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