Ocado launches Alexa app for voice-activated online shopping

Ocado launches Alexa app for voice-activated online shopping

Online grocery retailer Ocado has announced it will be the first supermarket in the UK to launch an app for the voice-controlled personal assistant, Amazon Alexa.

The Ocado app for Amazon’s smart home speaker, Echo, will enable customers to use voice commands to add products to an existing order or basket, to check their orders before they submit them and to find out  what products are in season and how best to include them in recipes. They’ll also be able to track deliveries.

In order to understand individual customers’ product preferences, the Ocado Technology team built an Ocado Conversational Service, based on artificial intelligence (AI), which is able to suggest both related and previously bought items for customers to add to their baskets.

Read more: Ocado trials driverless CargoPod for last-mile grocery deliveries

Behind the scenes

In a blog post about the new service, the Ocado Technology e-commerce team explains how, when it first started building its Alexa ‘skill’ (a chunk of function built to support a specific use for Amazon’s smart speakers), it quickly realized that it would important to support a “natural, bi-directional conversational flow.”

This is what allows the service to ‘understand’ orders made in different ways, as well as commands that allow a customer to check their basket’s contents, for example, or verify the total price of an order.

According to the blog post, Alexa converts the audio stream into a command (for example, ‘add to basket’) and a search term (such as ‘cheese’), based on examples provided by Ocado, which has trained Alexa to recognize the top 15,000 most commonly searched items from Ocado.com.

These text queries are then passed on to the Ocado skill, which also runs on AWS, where the request is processed and an appropriate response is established using internal APIs [application programming interfaces].

(Credit: Ocado Technology)

It’s this response that leads to this two-way conversation, the blog post explains. “If the request can be fulfilled, i.e. we have the item in stock, the Ocado skill will send an output to Alexa; for example, ‘I’ve added Cathedral mature cheddar to Thursday’s Ocado order. Can I help you with anything else?’ However, if the item is out of stock, unavailable or cannot be found, the Ocado skill will not only offer the appropriate notification, but can also make alternative suggestions; ‘Sorry the Cathedral City mature cheddar you usually buy is out of stock. How about trying the Ocado organic mature cheddar instead?’”

This means that shoppers can gradually collate their shopping basket over a few days, as and when they finish items in their kitchens.

Read more: Online-only retailer Ocado trials robotic arm to speed up orders

Consumer confidence?

Ocado’s clearly hoping that this could mean an end to hastily-conducted audits of our kitchen cabinets prior to a shop, or entering into online systems those reminders previously scribbled on shopping lists, sticky notes or kitchen whiteboards.

“Grocery shopping should be quick, easy and convenient,” said Lawrence Hene, marketing and commercial director at Ocado. “Using voice technology, we’ve made it even easier, by developing our new app that will enable customers to add to their Ocado baskets without even lifting a finger.”

Commenting on the launch, John Rakowski, director of technology strategy at application monitoring and analytics specialist AppDynamics, said that the announcement demonstrates continued momentum in building speech-activated services and a “very intriguing development” in the battle for online supermarket shoppers.

“While there may be some mainstream consumer scepticism about the practical value of voice assistants, we’re certain to see further deployments of the technology by Amazon and other digital retailers in the near future,” he said. “Ten years ago, the launch of the iPhone and the advent of apps drew a fair degree of initial scepticism. Now apps are part of everyday life, and more so, will become crucial in the retail battleground.”  

Meanwhile at Fujitsu, Rupal Karia, head of commercial for the UK and Ireland suggested that the pressure is on for retailers to give customers “what they want, before they know they want it.”

In late July, consumer confidence levels in the UK slumped to the same levels seen immediately after the Brexit referendum, against a backdrop of rising inflation and weakening wage growth.

According to Karia, retailers must use technology to differentiate the experience that they can offer customers or face a worrying prospect, namely “being the next generation of retailers to be pushed out of the high street for good.”