Bernard O'Shea: At last, someone is listening to me - even if it is just Alexa

Voice commerce is using your voice to shop online. Just scream what you need violently into your phone while eating a selection box for your lunch
Bernard O'Shea: At last, someone is listening to me - even if it is just Alexa

Bernard O'Shea comedian

I recently learned that "going for the messages" originated from people getting all the local info and gossip from their daily purchases. Buying groceries, popping into the butcher and checking your balance in the post office was the equivalent of today's Twitter feed.

It was a social outlet for people to meet other human beings, talk to them, laugh, and share their thoughts. But due to online shopping and the ease at which the consumer can effectively buy anything they want, any time, anywhere, coupled with Covid 19, means footfall into shops has decreased.

According to industry payment website www.pymnts.com "in-store shopping was down 25% from 2019, with just 44% of consumers reporting that they made purchases in brick-and-mortar stores". But one of the most insightful statistics found that "Bridge Millennials (aged 32–41) were almost twice as likely as the average consumers to use voice-activated technology to make purchases. Hence, once the COVID-19 is over, consumers will not get back to physical stores." So watch what you say because we are heading into the era of voice commerce.

Voice commerce is essentially using your voice to shop online. No more typing "last-minute Christmas gifts" into Google; now just scream it violently into your phone or laptop while eating a selection box for your lunch.

Voice Commerce and voice recognition isn't new technology. It dates back to the 1960s when I.B.M. engineer William C Dersch created the first-ever voice recognition system, called "Shoebox" (according to www.sana-commerce.com).

As a child watching telly in the 1980s, nearly every US sitcom had a scene where the protagonist would get frustrated with the automated voice system ordering pizza or cinema tickets. It wasn't until the 1990s that I tried using such a service myself and I realised how awful they were.

Mobile phones from the mid-1990s onwards incorporated A. I voice commands. One of the more well-known is Apple's Siri. However, no matter how intelligent Siri thinks it is, it still can't recognise the surnames, Dullaghan, Considine, and Maher pronounced "Ma-her". Then again, it could be my thick Midlands accent. But when it comes to getting you to open the wallet and spend money, Amazon's Alexa was - and is - the game-changer.

Amazon sells its Alexa devices at a loss because they generate income once installed. Alexa does listen to you, and it has to for it to work. When you say "Alexa", its blue light pulses, and it awaits your command. It's able to connect to your kitchen lights and put the washing machine on a spin cycle. So we shouldn't be that surprised when we get a recommendation or an e-mail about new shoes when we just had a conversation about buying new ones.

Grant Clauser of The New York Times wrote in 2019, "Like any website or mobile app, Alexa collects information on how users interact with it from what they say, what they ask it to do, and which third-party skills they interact with. Amazon likens this to how websites use cookies to collect information on your browsing, but Alexa goes a bit beyond that. It knows what music you listen to, what you put on your shopping list, and what smart-home products you have connected to your system, all based on what you told it to do.”

I find vocal data mining a bit scary. That is until you run out of toilet paper. If Amazon tells me to re-stock a week before my Kittensoft shortage, then the tech is helpful. But where will Amazon draw the line on using the information?

If you were to pop into your local shop tomorrow and the person behind the counter just casually said, "You're running low on bleach and dishwasher tabs. Oh, and I know you were thinking about changing your kitchen, so I recommend you pick up a few house magazines", You'd probably call the guards. The big question for voice commerce isn't how useful it will become but who will regulate it?

It provides a solution for those who want a more personalised digital experience. I get it. I know people hate busy shopping centres, trying to get parking in town, and all the headaches. It's not even about getting "the messages" anymore. We can get that on our phones, but there's something about the need for us to be surrounded by other people. No matter how inconvenient

Even when someone takes our car parking space, even those that sit in the busy cafe hovering over a coffee, taking up the seat you most desperately want, no, you need, because your verrucas are acting up again. Seeing people just like ourselves trying to wrangle a few extra samples at the face cream counter or haggling over the expiry date of a voucher. It's about having a communal experience regardless of how trivial and annoying.

Shopping for me isn't about personal experiences; it's about shared experiences. That's what I say to myself anyway when I'm stuck in a three-mile queue on Christmas Eve trying to get into an overflow car park. But I can always ask the question, "Hey Siri, what time does Dunnes close?"

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