By Doug Baker, Vice President, Industry Relations - Private Brands, Technology, FMI
voice assistants

Many in the industry can’t hear it yet, but artificial intelligence voice assistances (AI-voice) – on a home-based smart speaker, smartphone or a car dashboard – are on their way to the grocery industry. As they arrive, it will not only accelerate the move to online grocery but solidify consumer-to-brand relationships for retailers that connect with shoppers via voice.

Research conducted by PwC finds that in 2018, 90% of survey respondents were familiar with voice assistants and of those consumers, 72% had used them. Interestingly, 71% of the survey respondents said they would rather use a voice assistant to search for something than the traditional method of physically typing to search. The report finds 34% have used voice assistants to order food for takeout and 31% have used them to buy groceries. While there are still advances that need to be made to make AI-voice a stronger, more reliable user experience, the convenience and prevalence of this technology means there is potential for it to change consumer shopping habits.  

With that in mind, FMI recently teamed up with Jon Stine of the Open Voice Network (OVN), a new industry-driven non-profit association dedicated to making voice “open” – accessible, data protected, and interoperable, creating value for retailers and consumers alike – through the pursuit and development of global standards for voice. These standards are intended to help consumers find your brand directly, and without the concern of third-party platforms listening in. Standards will provide new levels of data protection for both shoppers and your commercial data.

FMI has formed a working group that will support OVN and recently the FMI Chief Information Officer (CIO) Council visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Auto-ID Lab, (MIT) for its fall meeting to learn more. To better understand this emerging issue, I sat down with Stine to answer some overview questions regarding AI-voice:

We’ve read that AI-voice is the fastest-selling consumer technology ever. Is that true?  

Yes, but we need to keep in mind that AI-voice is in its earliest days. AI-voice is about the way shoppers will increasingly (and easily) connect to your brand, or not. It's about your brand's voice and about higher customer satisfaction (in service) and greater productivity. There are three things to keep in mind:

  • AI-voice is about much more than smart speakers. It’s about smartphones and smart appliances, and even automobiles. AI-voice is a software platform that can reside on all types of devices. Jupiter Research forecasts that there will be 3.25 billion software voice assistants in use this year; in comparison, Amazon's Alexa/Echo smart speaker had just more than 100 million units in use at year-end 2018.
  • AI-voice is going to be a primary way that we connect to the internet. Yes, there are roughly 100,000 Alexa skills today, but there are some 1.725 billion internet websites online. We’re nowhere near fully connected via voice.
  • Today’s "robotic Q&A" AI-voice experience is the just the first step of AI-voice functionality. The near-future will see the emergence of more human-like dialogue and conversation (with contextual understanding) between humans and the machines.               
Why is AI-voice important to the food retail industry?

Stine: Beyond being a primary way consumers connect to the internet, AI-voice is convenient—all you have to do is talk. There is no need to be in front of a screen to type, swipe, tap or touch to command, to connect, to converse. Consumers are going to gravitate to that feature.

In addition, AI-voice is data rich. Keep in mind that we’ll need to obtain proper and informed consent, but with your best and most loyal shoppers, you will be able to listen to them – their questions, their interests, their concerns. Potentially, it’ll be like having a giant focus group.

Lastly, recent research from Capgemini shows that voice is already a preferred method of interaction across the shopping journey – and especially, today, at the search and post-sale support phases (which is where shoppers are certainly won and lost.)

Join the Discussion on AI-Voice

To get involved in the Open Voice Initiative, and to help develop important AI-voice standards, contact Jon Stine at I encourage FMI members to join in the conversation at FMItech at Midwinter. We will be talking about consumer trends and standards around voice along with other technology-focused business opportunities.