Amazon may have sold millions of Echoes and other devices equipped with its voice-controlled Alexa smart assistant partially in the hopes that it could nudge users into letting an upbeat voice convince them to buy more crap. But it doesn’t appear to be working, according to a report in the Information on Monday.
Per the report, despite sales of 50 million Alexa-capable devices, pretty much no one is using Alexa to place orders for them on Amazon. Fewer still place an order via Alexa and then decide they have the stomach to do it again. In fact, the number of one-time Alexa shoppers in 2018 lurks in the low single digits:
The Information has learned that only about 2% of the people with devices that use Amazon’s Alexa intelligent assistant—mostly Amazon’s own Echo line of speakers—have made a purchase with their voices so far in 2018, according to two people briefed on the company’s internal figures. Amazon has sold about 50 million Alexa devices, the people said.
Of the people who did buy something using Alexa voice shopping, about 90% didn’t try it again, one of the people said. A larger number, 20%, have engaged more broadly with Alexa voice shopping by using commands like “What are my deals?” and “Where is my stuff?” to track orders that were likely made on other devices.
These figures are far lower than other third-party estimates, the Information wrote, such as one from the research firm Voicebot.ai in June that concluded 16 percent of smart speaker owners use them to shop at least once a month. They also shed doubts on other estimates by financial analysts that the smart speaker shopping market will eventually be worth many times what it is today. Right now, those users who are shopping with Alexa mainly use it to stock up on home supplies.
In the meantime, the Information wrote, the vast majority of people use Alexa and other comparable devices like the Google Home to use its vast library of voice-activated skills—things like checking the weather, operating connected smart devices, and streaming media. Even those functions can be cagey: As Gizmodo colleague Alex Cranz noted in a recent review of Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, voice-controlled systems can turn simple tasks into irritating shouting sessions.
This all makes sense, because browsing the actual Amazon website to buy things is indisputably a better way to comparison shop than having options conveyed via speech. That’s due to a multitude of factors, one of them being that whenever Alexa is unable to return an Amazon’s Choice product—the line of products it chooses via an undisclosed method—it is likely to recite a belabored string of search-optimized garbage. Factor in the inability of a smart speaker to actually let users see the product in question or quickly browse through reviews, or the mechanics of switching between shipping and payment options, and ordering via voice suddenly doesn’t sound all that great when users’ money is on the line. And those tricks Alexa might use in the future to juice up the voice-order business might come across as transparent ways to inject advertising into the home, which could in turn result in people just asking it to shut up.
Per the Information, Alexa skill developer Jo Jaquinta told the site that he generally views building third-party skills into the smart assistant as a promotional tool for brands, not a direct-sales strategy. Amazon has sought to promote Alexa shopping via tactics like voice-only discounts on purchases, but it’s easy to see how users might just hop on board long enough to save a few bucks before using the site exactly as they did before.
One of the Information’s sources said they believe it is simply a matter of finding out how they could encourage people to continue buying via Alexa through data analysis, after which point they could grow the market quickly.
“Millions of customers use Alexa to shop because it is the most convenient way to capture needs in the moment,” an Amazon spokesperson told the site. “We want to enable customers to shop in whatever way is easiest for them.”
At its core, though, one of the things that keeps people going back to Amazon is the huge variety of products, whereas a smart speaker really only seems ideal for pushing specific products that people already know they want. (Hence the heavy slant towards home products, in which picking an exact item matters less than, say, a new TV, a specific type of phone charger, or a chef’s knife.) At the end of the day, the best tool to do that—a computer or smartphone—is already in all of its customers’ hands. In other words, Amazon could be pushing something that would make it a lot more money if not for the fact no one really wants to use it.