Voice ordering and item recognition are growing in importance for B2B buyers.
This post previews some of the key findings in the third report based on our research for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors into how technology will transform the wholesale distribution industry. Download the report now.
In our August survey of more than 1,750 distributor customers, we asked how their purchases have shifted between channels since the COVID-19 crisis began. We defined the channels this way:
- Digital channels: Email (often through an email PO to an ERP order conversion system such as Conexiom), website, voice ordering (such as through Amazon’s Alexa), text, EDI, punchout and marketplaces
- Non-digital channels: Phone call to a customer service rep, a branch or through a sales rep
Our respondents represented a digitally savvy group, which is not unusual for an email-based survey, so these customers were already executing more than half of their purchases online.
On average, digital purchases as a percentage of total orders placed climbed 15%–17% versus pre-COVID.
Even more interesting, these customers forecast this behavior will continue after COVID, and they expect the total share of purchases executed through online channels will only decline 1% from its pandemic peak.
In our whitepaper with NAW, “How Distributor Customers Will Use Technologies from Their Suppliers and Who is Winning,” we go in-depth on how distributor customers’ purchasing behaviors are shifting and will shift going forward.
Here, we’d like to highlight two trends that stood out: voice ordering and item recognition.
We asked distributor customers to forecast the importance of voice ordering and item recognition over the next five years. Respondents were much more optimistic about the future of image-based ordering than that of voice ordering.
The results also varied by segment. While only 16% of overall respondents consider item recognition very important over the next five years, 48% of construction end customers and 41% of industrial end customers consider it important.
We believe item recognition will be in the early majority stage of adoption within five years, versus voice ordering which will likely be in the early adopter stage. Nonetheless, early adopters of voice ordering will likely reap two benefits: increased efficiency through touchless orders and improved customer experience.
Given that major retailers—including some disruptors currently moving into B2B—are working hard to deliver voice and image identification ordering, we researched basic information and examples of their efforts.
For voice ordering we looked at Amazon, Walmart and Google. All three companies now sell B2B products on marketplaces. Amazon and Walmart are actively filling roles for building voice ordering features. For Amazon, these features will be built for Alexa. One Amazon job posting states:
“The features you build will improve the experience for millions of customers at the end of every sprint, learning from new data, user behavior and better models.”
One Walmart job posting refers to the company’s efforts “in the areas of Conversational AI, Voice Assistants, Extended Reality and more.” The company notes that, “Currently Walmart Voice Order is only available for ordering groceries via Google Home assistants and Android mobile devices, but stay tuned as we work on expanding voice-enabled shopping capabilities to other product categories and more platforms.”
As for Google, the company offers detailed instructions on how to buy with your voice using the company’s hardware and software applications.
Walmart doesn’t currently offer item identification on its mobile app. However, we tried the feature with Amazon, AliExpress (part of Alibaba), eBay and Home Depot. We opened the app from each company, chose the “search by image” icon and pointed the camera at an inexpensive tilting drill press vise.
We used each app to shoot an image from a similar angle and waited for the software (which is in the cloud) to come back with matching results—if any. Four out of five apps came up with similar items:
- Google: Showed a very similar product among the top two results.
- eBay: Offered a similar item in the first position.
- AliExpress: Displayed four very similar items with identical photos. Two of them had incorrect descriptions.
- Home Depot: The top two results were of simpler drill press vises. When we checked on Homedepot.com, we found the exact item offered with free shipping.
The only app that could not find similar items was Amazon, though that was where this item was purchased.
Keep in mind that these apps are powered by artificial intelligence. They “learn” from their successes and failures – and they never forget. Over time, they will be able to identify virtually any product.
Different yet Complementary Technologies
Voice ordering and item recognition have different use cases, and we believe both will grow in importance for B2B buyers. Voice ordering has a major advantage in that buyers can “shop” while doing other tasks. Nonetheless, you can’t read technical data or compare items easily by voice. And image ordering requires the user to point a smartphone at a product and then execute the transaction on the device’s screen.
We expect these technologies will be used together in the future. It’s not hard to imagine a construction superintendent roaming a jobsite with a camera built into his safety goggles. If he needs more concrete saw blades, he can simply look at one, ask a digital assistant to identify it and then voice order it from Amazon Business, Alibaba, Google Shopping or Home Depot.
It’s going to take time before most distributors offer item identification or voice ordering. Most don’t have the product data or technology expertise to build these capabilities themselves. But we hope distributors will take note of this fast-developing trend and evaluate solutions that can provide voice ordering and item identification to their customers.
Learn more about this and other digital channel shifts distributor customers are making, or expect to make, in our latest whitepaper for National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, How Distributor Customers Will Use Technologies from Their Suppliers and Who is Winning.
Jonathan Bein, Ph.D. is Managing Partner at Distribution Strategy Group. He’s
developed customer-facing analytics approaches for customer segmentation,
customer lifecycle management, positioning and messaging, pricing and channel strategy for distributors that want to align their sales and marketing resources with how their customers want to shop and buy. If you’re ready to drive real ROI, reach out to Jonathan today at