Google just announced what some may feel is an overdue response to Amazon’s wildly successful Echo/Alexa product line: shopping via Google Assistant on the Google Home device. Just like with Alexa, users can talk to the app/device and purchase “everyday essentials—from paper towels to vitamins” from more than 50 “national and locally available retailers.” And therein lies the challenge.
“Experts” believe that Amazon’s first-to-market status for Alexa gives it a tremendous advantage—it certainly helps, but when competing against Google Assistant and the others that will soon be vying for consumers, that’s not necessarily what will keep Amazon on top. Being the sole vendor or at least the primary vendor in a marketplace it controls on its own terms is Amazon’s major strength. Google and other challengers are and will remain stymied by that for a long time to come.
While I don’t know exactly how Google’s partner vendors came to be in its program, I’m confident that they were invited and are not ponying up much to join in. They have practically nothing to lose experimenting with the platform, gauging its effectiveness and in general, how shoppers interact with a voice driven interface. Google is however, challenged with herding cats in the form of well established companies that are not allies, but competitors, some with extensive product overlap and holding them all together, effectively. Time will tell if the merchants stick with Assistant and how good Google is at pulling together a delightful user experience on par or better than its clear opponent.
So who is going to supply those paper towels a consumer requests? Will it be Walgreens, Target, Costco, Staples, PetSmart, or any number of future merchants including possibly, the manufacturer? Bounty for example, has many variations of packaging and roll sizes for its towel line and SKU’s vary amongst the vendors. How will Google Assistant deal with that? Will it be price and proximity based? Will each purchase require an “order X from so-and-so” kind of directive? Will it keep a running history of all purchases a shopper makes through the platform and tie that in with other accumulated shopping/personal data to make vendor judgements? That could be, or is its long-tail strategy to develop a pay-for-play environment like Google Shopping, except where vendors bid to be the supplier of choice when a user makes a request? It might be a combination of both, but getting to a workable system that takes into account tremendous variables that web search and on-screen results never encountered, is a couple of orders of magnitude greater.
Users of any new interface reach a point where the shine wears off and they want it to be at least as effective or entertaining as alternatives, else it ends up on the shelf with other faddish technology. Voice interfaces are not a whim and have incredible possibilities, but shopping via speech could end up out of favor if not implemented in a thoughtful user-centric manner. So working out how to supply just what the shopper wants without intrusive or tedious questioning, is entirely uphill and daunting in this incarnation, even for such a capable and deep pocketed company.
Amazon faces some of the same challenges in that voice shopping is a tough nut to crack once things go below the surface of easily identifiable products, when it’s not a reorder, or when comparisons and additional content (like user reviews) are part of the buying process. Having a walled marketplace as well as having a known (did anyone say Prime?) and loyal customer base, are big assets that naysayers and challengers mustn’t forget.
Then there’s vendor satisfaction. As Google Assistant grows, it will become ever more difficult to keep merchants happy. Presumably, as shopping via Assistant gains traction, it will be at the expense of seller’s company web sites and social media channels (a fact not lost on Alexa). So Google is faced with partner/vendors that will as a requisite, demand (yes demand) to see gains that justify what would effectively be extricating themselves from or cannibalizing the channels that they’ve developed and refined over the course of years.
Clearly these are early days and the majority of the population has not yet truly embraced voice interfaces and has barely used them for shopping. Everyone is on a steep learning curve and iterations are part of the process. Google however, has more to accomplish this time than toppling established search sites or rivaling (besting?) iOS with Android. In one pass, it has to assemble a disparate group of brands into a cohesive purchasing experience, match its biggest competitor’s fulfillment capacity, develop a new shopping habit in its user base, and grow Google Assistant revenues without cannibalizing existing ad revenue streams, all while its opponent keeps upping the stakes and chipping away at Google’s core business.
Let’s not forget that every other entity entering the space largely has the equivalent scenario as Google, even Apple. They too, if they want any chance of success, have to wrestle daunting issues that by its dominant digital commerce position, Amazon is above. Now with a substantial head start, Amazon “only” has to focus on greater adoption and improvement—substantial challenges in and of themselves.
Never say never, but it’s truly doubtful that Amazon has many worries over this.