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Why Qurate Launched an Alexa Skill Even Though ‘Voice Isn’t Friendly to Brands’

Qurate CEO Mike George isn’t trying to be one of a majority of retail leaders so focused on perfecting their mobile app or optimizing a responsive site that they’re overlooking what’s happening with voice commerce—and where it could take them in the future.

After a year of debating what, if anything, to do in the voice arena, three months ago Qurate—owner of brands including QVC and HSN—finally decided it was time for the rubber to meet the road, George shared with attendees at the WWD Apparel + Retail CEO Summit in New York City on Oct. 30. Those 90 days of voice development culminated in an official HSN skill for Alexa, formally unveiled yesterday, that will help the company chase new generations of shoppers, George said.

On a device like the Echo Show, which features a digital display, consumers can engage with rich video content live and on demand, he added. Next year people will be able to order by voice from live broadcasts, voice-search across the complete product assortment and access shipping and account details just by speaking.

“Conversational commerce is a logical extension of our core value proposition,” said the chief executive, who joined the Qurate family in 2005 following a four-year stint as CMO of Dell Inc. Though QVC and HSN are known as home or TV shopping companies, Qurate—which lives at the “wonderful and strange intersection of retail and media, content and commerce,” George said—is investing in voice technology on the premise it will fundamentally alter how people engage with brands.

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Digital voice assistants like “Alexa and her cousins,” George continued, are “the voice version of a search engine, but they’re not very friendly to brands and not very friendly to the shopping experience.”

Consumer adoption of smart speakers and voice assistants continues to grow steadily, but brands rightly are concerned of how they’ll fare in a voice-first world. As First Insight CEO Greg Petro said at the summit, voice search might be great for the top tier brands with instant household name recognition but it presents a challenge for everyone else. What’s more, searching for fashion in a marketplace environment is less than ideal for brands whose identities and points of view can get muddled in the melee.

Qurate’s solution is to start that voice-based relationship with customers now—even if the skill isn’t quite the flawless experience the company would like it to be. “We want to use Alexa to help a consumer search for inspiration rather than search for a product,” George said of how the company thinks about where voice tech can provide value. “We’re so proud of our customer experience, loyalty and retention that we probably erred on the side of being conservative with giving [the customer] features before we’re confident they’re perfect.”

That “act now and iterate” mentality might be a tough, uncomfortable call for a company used to doing things a certain way, but it reflects how quickly fashion retailers must move to deliver the experiences that effectively attract young, digital-smart shoppers who aren’t spending nearly as many hours in front of the boob tube as their moms and grandmas. Asked whether the HSN customer will be happy to “co-learn” with Qurate as it “evolves the experience” of its work-in-progress Alexa skill, George replied, “I guess we’ll find out.”

In contrast to last week’s comments by Farfetch CEO José Neves on the “power of the platform” at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, George maintained that remaining relevant today is more a matter of enhancing the customer’s journey and the ways she wants to engage than focusing myopically on Qurate’s own platform. After launching beauty micro-brands Ellie Sugar and Fuss Beauty, backed solely by advertising on social media, Qurate’s taking the same approach with a pair of fashion brands—Du Jour at QVC and on HSN, Curations—that will leverage Instagram and Facebook to target consumers when they’re in discovery mode.

“We have to be ready for her,” George said.

The 57-year-old executive likens Qurate to a “shopping democracy” drawing from the reams of data generated by more than 10,000 new products launched every week across five shopping channels in the U.S. and other touchpoints.

All of those product drops generate data and insights that can further enhance the business, George said.