When Will People Start Shopping With Alexa?

Voice-based purchasing hasn’t taken off yet. Does it matter?

An Amazon Echo and a man flashing a wad of cash at it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by g-stockstudio/iStock and Amazon.

Amazon Echo owners use its voice-based digital assistant Alexa for a variety of purposes. Playing music and listening to the news typically top the list, but smart home control, general knowledge queries, and things like timers and alarms are also popular. Among its many built-in and third-party skills, one of the features least used by Echo owners is probably the one its maker wishes consumers used most: purchasing products through Amazon.

Researchers have been predicting huge growth in shopping with virtual assistants. By 2022, the voice shopping space is supposed to be a $40 billion market. But recent surveys have found Alexa shopping is in its early days. In one U.K. survey published in June, only 7 percent of Echo device owners said they use the smart speaker for buying products with their voice. In a report published by the Information this week citing data straight from Amazon, that number is even lower—only 2 percent of Echo owners have tried purchasing items via Alexa.

The 2022 estimate may sound overly aggressive given the slow growth so far. But by that year, total e-commerce sales are projected to hit $638 billion. Voice-based shopping, if it hit its target, would represent only 6 percent of digital sales. Given the current growth of the smart speaker space—the Information also notes that Amazon has sold upward of 50 million Echo devices—that number still sounds achievable, even if consumers haven’t warmed up to the habit just yet.

It takes time for shopping patterns to evolve. Online shopping has taken years to gain serious traction. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests e-commerce made up less than 1 percent of total sales volume in the year 2000 and first hit the 6 percent mark in 2014. Even now, it only makes up about 10 percent of total purchases—despite being a $461 billion market. While online purchasing has taken years to gain a critical mass, consumers have taken to smartphone-based purchasing far more quickly. Google Analytics data suggests mobile purchases made up 40 percent of online transactions from June to September 2017 and are estimated to total $93.5 billion this year, according to market research firm Forrester.

Analysts seem to expect voice-based purchasing to follow the speedy adoption rates we’ve seen for mobile purchasing. It makes sense: Smart speaker ownership is quickly growing and so are the ways and frequency with which owners are using their A.I.-powered devices. In a survey published in January, 51 percent of smart speaker owners reported using their devices more often than they did in the first month of ownership. Just as with a smartphone, where you may start with a handful of functions and apps, smart speaker usage similarly expands.
While many people haven’t tried (or haven’t warmed up to) voice-based purchasing, it could be something that becomes more commonplace as time goes on.

With that in mind, the fact that only 2 percent of smart speaker owners currently partake in voice-based purchasing isn’t worrying. But it’s worth considering the concerns that might stop users from voice shopping, such as how Alexa chooses what item to order. If you ask Alexa to buy more toilet paper, what brand is she going to suggest? When you make a voice purchase, Amazon looks for Prime-eligible products and defaults to items you’ve previously purchased. Alexa will tell you its name and price before you confirm or cancel the order, but it can feel like a fundamental difference from online shopping. The prospect of ordering something sight unseen may be a deterrent to adoption (although you can check additional product details in the Alexa app before confirming your purchase).

Mobile purchasing emerged as a convenient extension of online shopping, but voice-based purchasing is a new paradigm. It’ll take time for consumers to learn how it works and get comfortable with the practice, just as it did when online purchasing became an option. As smart speakers infiltrate more homes, and their owners expand how they use them, voice-based purchasing should gain traction, too.