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Innovation

Ebay taps Google to power voice shopping

Ebay Australia has jumped in bed with Google to bolster its voice capabilities ahead of an expected flurry of consumer interest in the audible shopping methods over the next few years.

Google’s AI assistant can now search for products on eBay or compare prices with its listings – either directly on compatible iOS and Android devices, or through Google’s suite of smart home products.

Announcing the new service just in time for Christmas on Wednesday, Ebay Australia CEO Tim MacKinnon said the technology had been built from the ground up to deliver shoppers with personalised experiences, describing voice as the “future of retail”.

“We are looking at the future of retail here, and we are excited to be at the early stages of this new commerce frontier, bringing the eBay shopping and selling experience closer to our customer’s everyday lives,” he said.

The functionality will promote the local marketplace as a price comparison tool with consumers and will include the ability to switch from a voice platform, such as Google Home Mini, to smart phones – a feature called ‘multi-surface switching’.

Ebay’s foray into the world of voice shopping comes amid analyst predictions that the practice is about to take off in Australia, following increased popularity of audible products in the US and UK in recent years.

Amazon, which is tipped as a significant threat to Ebay locally, has sold more than 11 million of its own Echo voice shopping devices globally since launching them in 2015.

Research conducted by J. Walter Thompson on consumer attitudes towards voice in the UK, US and Australia earlier this year concluded that the technology behind voice shopping had advanced sufficiently to support broad-based consumer penetration of the practice.

JTW’s Asia Pacific digital director Josie Brown said in July that the only thing holding back uptake of voice shopping in Australia was devices localised for the market.

“The trends seen in the UK and US show that when we have the right devices, the Australian market will follow suit,” she predicted. “It will explode in Australia when we have devices localised for the market.”

What does this mean for retailers?

Despite the hype, the implications of voice shopping for Australian retailers aren’t clear-cut. While Ebay is looking to capitalise on appetite for voice and Amazon is expected to launch its suite of products locally, there is the potential for some retailers to be cut out of the equation.

As Brown put it: “the risk is that the device recommends its own brands, and if you’re asking about a product category … it’s not always going to be easy for customers to specify what brand they want to put in their shopping basket.”

Tech companies such as Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Apple have been engaged in a mad dash in recent years to cement their place in the emerging ‘smart home’ environment, with audible shopping providing a potential gate-keeping situation that has the potential to curtail consumer choice.

While Ebay does not retail its own products on its platform, the metrics by which voice shopping devices recommend appropriate products begs the question: what brand or business will the device select?

MacKinnon told Internet Retailing that the new system will utilise Ebay’s best match algorithm, which takes into account several factors.

“The Ask eBay function will continue to ask the consumer for more details to narrow down search options. Just like typing into the search bar on eBay, the more specific the description, the more refined the results are. Ask eBay uses a ‘Best Match’ algorithm that takes into consideration a number of factors including price, condition, format, free shipping, diversity of sellers, product and location, to produce the top recommendation,” he said.

In the US, Amazon has also been using its Prime loyalty program as a point of commercial synergy with its range of audible devices.

Amazon’s 2017 Prime Day ꟷ an annual shopping holiday for loyalty members ꟷ delivered exclusive deals to Prime members ordering via its voice system Alexa, providing some 100 deals to voice shoppers a week before the event.

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