Alexa makes decision-making easier than ever—by making your choices for you

The overwhelming perils of the yoghurt aisle.
The overwhelming perils of the yoghurt aisle.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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There’s no stopping voice technology. eMarketer forecasts that 57 million US adults will use a smart speaker at least once a month this year, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google Home. This figure that rises to 91 million when you count voice assistants embedded into other devices, like Apple’s Siri.

It doesn’t stop there. Another report says that by 2020, half of all searches will be done by voice. Yet another predicts that voice shopping will grow to $40 billion in 2022. “Not since the smartphone has any tech device been adopted as quickly as the smart speaker,” eMarketer’s report said.

But what does this mean for us, the consumers? Beyond the undeniable truth that voice technology will change how we shop, it’ll also change what we actually buy.

Voice and choice paralysis

Here’s how shopping psychology currently works. Walk into a grocery store, and you’ll find endless choices in front of you. Different kinds of toilet paper, multitudes of batteries, an entire section devoted to yogurt, an entire aisle filled with cereal. That seemingly unlimited choice only gets magnified when you shop online. For example, a search for “paper towels” will give you 30,000 product results on Amazon and endless pages of information on Google. Unless you have really strong feelings about exactly which paper towels you use (and some people really do), the endless selection can feel a bit overwhelming.

The rise of voice shopping will change that drastically, helping you cull down the decisions—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. If you ask Alexa or Google Home to buy you granola bars, they don’t give you a list of options to choose from. Unlike what you’d find in either a brick-and-mortar or online store, you’re given a couple of options at most. While you can ask for more, it’s an extra step you’ll need to actively take.

The result? Unless you’re looking for a very specific product (say, Nature Valley Crunchy bars), you’ll probably go with whatever is served up to you first. And after you’ve ordered something once, it becomes incredibly convenient for you to just re-order the same brand over and over again: Your voice assistant will assume that you simply want to repeat your previous purchase, and present that option to you first.  And so the cycle continues. Unless you proactively ask for a different brand by name (or until a time when paid voice search results become a reality, and the first choice could be determined by the highest bidder), you’ll simply wind up with the same products each time.

Welcome to the world of incidental loyalty.

Incidental loyalty

When it comes to shopping for products in voice search, the second-place getter becomes the first-place loser.

For commoditized products that rely on low prices instead of true brand loyalty, the impact will be huge. After all, how many granola brands do you really know by heart? The winners will be brands that have carved out unique niches in the market or those whose products have become synonymous with the category itself (like Kleenex or Q-Tips).

Even the name of a company will influence if you buy it or not. Let’s take two common yogurt brands in the US: Yoplait and Fage. While the former has wider name recognition, the latter can be challenging to pronounce. Is it Fay-gee? Fay-ahe? Fa-gee? (It’s actually Fa-yeh.) This make voice shopping a riskier proposition for this product, not only because consumers may bungle its name, but US-centric voice assistants will have a harder time recognizing the correct pronunciation as well. In a shopping environment ruled by voice assistants, Fage sales could see a significant dip.

This is bad news for consumers as well as businesses. The more we keep buying the same products over and over again, the more we’ll start to see their competitors go out of business. In the long term, incidental loyalty means that we could start to see monopolies or duopolies for everyday items that are served up at the top of voice searches. Those endless shelves of razors and toilet paper? Those will be gone.

We’ll also stop happening upon new discoveries that delight the senses. When you’re only hearing a couple options from your voice assistant versus looking at a wide range of goods, you’re much less likely to stumble upon something new. Your new favorite snack, breakfast food, or soap could be out there, but you’ll never know.

The choices we shouldn’t give up

We’re entering a period where we’ve never had more choice, yet more choices are being made for us.

Relying on voice assistants will certainly make life more convenient in many ways. When you’re running late to work and realize you’ve run out of milk or multivitamins, being able to order them verbally on your way out the door will make things exponentially easier. But when you don’t give your product choices a second thought, you’re actually sacrificing something much more important.

Think about the impact that spending power has had on companies today. When we vote with our wallets, we can see what a powerful effect consumer boycotts and purchasing choices have on companies. It’s what leads to big companies offering more environmentally conscious products and changing their store policies. Shopping via voice might erode that influence.

In order to hold on to our real spending power, we need to be more thoughtful and self-aware about what we’re buying via voice technology. And that’ll become trickier as voice assistants themselves become more advanced. Announcements made at Google I/O in May as well as recent developments from Amazon show that these companies are working hard to enable us to have more natural, human-like conversations with our voice assistants. The more our voice assistants mimic human interaction, the more we’ll come to see them as a friend or companion in our homes instead of just a digital assistant. That means that when we ask them for help in buying things like hand soap or tissues, their answers will have more power, because we’ll start to trust their recommendations like we would another person. After all, research shows that when it comes to purchasing decisions, we trust the advice of family and friends far more than other consumers or sources.

Ultimately, we have always wanted more choices for what we do and what we buy. But the future of voice shopping means that we risk giving up a lot of those choices. As consumers—and as a society as a whole—we have a choice in how we approach this next evolution of shopping. Let’s make sure that we’re doing it thoughtfully, and not sacrificing our abilities to choose altogether.

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.