“Dammit Siri, I wanted baby wipes, not disinfectant wipes”
“Conversational commerce is a fancy term for what is actually a pretty simple interaction,” says Jenny Fleiss, cofounder and CEO of Jetblack, a personal shopping service. “It is just having a dialogue with someone to make a purchase.” Jetblack, launched in March 2018, uses a mix of text messages, voice-assisted communications, an iOS app, and in-app conversations to process customer orders—a portfolio of touch points Fleiss expects to continue for the near future. “Omnichannel,” she says, referring to the term for a retail strategy that integrates different shopping platforms, “continues to become more and more broad [to include] texts . . . voice, and [used] to compliment a physical location, apps, and an e-commerce website.”
Fleiss’s view is validated by a new study authored by Jetblack that includes a GCIA survey revealing that only about 3% of consumers depend on voice assistants to do the majority of their shopping, though a third of American use them regularly (top use cases include seeking information and streaming music or videos). Jetblack is part of Walmart’s Store No. 8 incubation arm.
Rival Amazon, which developed the Alexa virtual assistant, also seems to take a measured view on the role of voice in e-commerce—for now. Amazon’s top hardware executive, Dave Limp, recently told CNBC that Alexa’s presence in homes was starting to change consumer behaviors that could lead to more shopping but he added, “I don’t think they are necessarily buying more,” he said. Others are more overtly bullish: RBC Capital analyst Mark Mahaney has forecast that Alexa could drive $9.4 billion in incremental annual sales for Amazon by 2021.
The Jetblack paper concludes that voice will become an increasingly important part of the consumers’ shopping habits, but they’ll also text, use shopping apps, go online, and yes, even go into physical stores. The key to voice assistants becoming more useful, ironically, is that consumers need to use them more so that the Artificial Intelligence software that fuels them will become more adept at understanding natural language patterns. Fleiss, who also cofounded Rent the Runway, spoke exclusively with Fast Company about the results of the study and the future of retail.
Fast Company: The report suggests we are at the very early stages of voice assistants as a tool for transactions.
Jenny Fleiss: We are at maybe in the second inning. Tools and technology have gotten dramatically better around voice technology in the past few years. About 30% of the US population has one of these devices in their homes. What is still very nascent . . . is shopping on those devices. Most consumers are using them to play music and to set timers, interactions that are very robotic in nature. But it can’t [engage] in a layered back-and-forth conversation and for shopping is often it not the most efficient. Consumers are always going to default to what is the most efficient, best way to shop. We should always remember that just because voice or certain tech is new and is the new hot thing, it doesn’t mean it’s actually the best answer.
When we built Jetblack, we chose to do so on text, largely because that’s actually what was most useful to consumers. Consumers can send images [to Jetblack]. You have a back-and-forth dialogue.
FC: What have you learned from texts that c