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Blog / Dec. 09

Hands-Free Shopping: A Wonderful Life or The Nightmare Before Christmas?

Mark Denton

Christmas is a time to reunite with old friends, and this year I’ll be doing exactly that. In fact I’m also inviting a gang of new friends to join me for Christmas dinner.

I’m talking about Siri. And Alexa. And Cortana. Oh, and Google Now (although that isn’t quite as catchy a name).

We’ve been accompanied by these personal assistants in our pockets for many years now. 2016 seems to be the year when they’ve finally come into their own. Now part of a joined up eco-system, these voices are fast moving from just being a gimmick that can give you the weather report to actually offering real value. From control of your smart home to being the home DJ and entertainer, we’re also starting to see a rise in personal shopping services. Which for a blog focused on retail is a good thing.

Now, I think everyone agrees these personal assistants are still evolving. No one would be stupid enough to attempt to run all their Christmas shopping through these devices, would they?

Would they?

“Hey Siri, recommend me something for my wife.”

My Apple Watch springs into life, hearing my call. This is great – true hands free technology in action!

“What is your wife’s name? Connect to your iPhone and show me.”

Ah maybe not quite so amazing!

The need for Siri to associate any request to a contact in my phone is the first challenge. And then there’s no knowledge of gender or age, let alone likes and preferences. Considering the press like to make a big deal with scare stories of constant monitoring via the phone, based on Siri’s response to my request, I think we can assume that this is definitely not the case. I mean, it’s not like my wife doesn’t give enough ‘subtle’ hints about what she actually expects. 

Luckily there are retail- specific apps available on my Apple Watch. Amazon has one for example. For some reason though, the only search mechanism through the app is via voice. Let’s just say the surprise present for my daughter probably won’t be that much of a surprise, considering she was sat next to me when I was ordering. Oh and things can get really embarrassing if you start doing your Christmas shopping on a train. Apologies if you were sat next to me on the train to London last week when I was spouting random words.

“Alexa, can you buy me the new Adele record?”

This seemed to be going a bit better. Not only could I add it to my Amazon basket and checkout, straight away the album was being streamed to me (with a quick upsell of Amazon’s streaming service).

“Now I need a case for an iPad Mini.”

This proved too much. There were clearly lots of cases for iPad minis, in a range of colours and styles – and no amount of audio-description from an Amazon Echo was going to find the right one. It could add one to my basket, but I had no idea what it looked like and was pointed to a browser to have a look.

Hands-free shopping wasn’t progressing in as straight forward a manner as I hoped. It was clear I’d need to head to a shop. In the spirit of the challenge, I vowed to keep to my Apple Watch as my main mechanism for shopping.

On the way out, a quick press of the Amazon Dash button triggered a delivery of cat food – at least someone would be getting what they wanted on Christmas morning.

The iPad case was easy to find in the shop and despite not accepting my loyalty card via my watch (the particular department store’s scanners were not compatible), I could at least pay via Apple Pay.

However this meant contorting my wrist in such a way to tap against the contactless reader that if I repeated this movement over time, I would definitely have severe arthritis. Sure, I could have removed the watch from my wrist, or got my phone out of my pocket – I could even have gone as retro as getting my card out my wallet, but once I set myself on a mission, I’m committed. Wrist injury or not.

The news coming out of Seattle, of the Amazon Just Walk Out store, perhaps gives us the ultimate taste of Christmas shopping to come. Walk in, pick up, walk out. According to Amazon, it’s what consumers want, and whilst it removes the need to queue at a checkout, it remains to be seen how quickly this technology will become widespread.

Let’s not forget that in 2016, many retailers are struggling with “basic” technology, or non-connected systems meaning that even using my smartphone as an enabler on my shopping trip results in a disconnected experience, let alone embracing wearables. 

So, all things considered, are we ready for a hands free Christmas shopping experience?

As consumers we are. Just consider the public’s reaction to the Amazon Just Walk Out video. But the simple fact is technology still needs to catch up. The front end may be there and ready to go but until all our devices are seamlessly connected to a wider retail eco-system, we may be a few years away from getting the ultimate shopping experience delivered by our own VIP, personal assistants.

However, there is one upside to all these new virtual friends. At least Siri or Alexa don’t expect a present on Christmas morning.

Yet.

When that happens, maybe it should be our turn to not understand what they are saying.