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Why Lacoste VP Says He’s ‘Bullish’ on Voice Tech

The industry would be wise not to fall into the trap of thinking voice commerce is over before it begins, simply because it’s still in its infancy—much as the now robust e-commerce market was just a few decades ago.

The familiar, short-sighted and dismissive arguments of “who would ever buy clothing or shoes on a computer?” that dominated the web-based shopping conversation in the 1990s are cropping up where voice is concerned, said Chris Hardisty, VP of retail and digital for Lacoste. And though the retail executive thinks a number of technologies, including visual search, are coming to bear on the consumer shopping experience, he’s far more “bullish” on the possibilities of what voice can do.

Naysayers are quick to contend that voice interaction will never supplant the rich interaction that comes with engaging in-store with a real, live human being—and they’re right, Hardisty told a group of retail industry players at the Retail Bonfire hosted by Coresight Research, Salesforce and Publicis.Sapient in New York City last week. The digital back-and-forth that you get with an artificial intelligence-powered assistant probably won’t ever replace talking with a flesh-and-blood associate, but that’s not really the point, Hardisty claimed.

Rather, voice is well suited for certain applications where a human doesn’t necessarily add value. “As interactions get more and more comfortable, I think voice is going to be more integral to all of the things we do,” Hardisty noted.

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Continuing, he said, “I believe whole heartedly in the retail store experience and a human being offering a real, genuine experience.” Voice and technology won’t change that dynamic, he added.

Retail Geek and Publicis.Sapient SVP of commerce Jason Goldberg is notably less enthusiastic about where speak-to-engage fits into the shopping landscape.

“I think voice is a little overhyped as a commerce interface,” he charged, describing the current voice-shopping options as a “Goldilocks” scenario.

Attribute-heavy transactions—here’s looking at you, fashion and footwear—aren’t exactly voice friendly. From the brand to the size to the color to any other variable options, and even using promo codes, who’s going to have the patience to rattle off what amounts to a cumbersome mouthful, and hope that Alexa or any other voice assistant gets it right without too much follow-up?

At the other end of the spectrum are the basics and commodities that are ordered with such predictability that AI and algorithms will be able to proactively ship them without requiring the formality of an order, Goldberg explained.

It’s in the middle of those two extremes that retailers might find opportunities where voice can enhance the consumer experience, he added.

Hardisty wasn’t swayed. “For me, voice is going to completely kick out the keyboard and mouse,” he countered. Devices like the Show and Spot in the Echo system or the Google Home Hub that incorporate a screen into the voice-first experience will advance this new channel “quicker than you think,” he said.

Previously tenured with Timberland and Puma, Hardisty described the biggest challenge of pivoting the Lacoste organization toward omnichannel operations that allow customers to search for product on in-store tablets, pay for purchases however they choose and buy online for in-store pick-up. Integrating all of the right systems to create a seamless customer-facing experience is tough enough, but changing human behavior is another matter altogether.

When faced with an out-of-stock, store associates are so programmed to just apologize for the lack of inventory and move on that getting them to think in “endless aisle” terms is an uphill battle, Hardisty explained. Of course, shoppers are conditioned to want their purchases right away but they’re increasingly more open to ship-to-home options as well as returning to the store at a later date to retrieve an endless aisle purchase.

“Getting employees to think about that first is the single biggest progress we’ve made,” Hardisty said.