COVID-19 may push retailers to use voice assistants instead of touch screens

Sep 23, 2020

While it’s no longer thought to be a primary source of transmission of the novel coronavirus, people are still thinking twice before interacting with public touch screens. Throughout retail, some are seeing voice-driven technology as a perfect solution that lets customers interact with automated kiosks while keeping their hands to themselves.

Circle K, Delaware North, Dunkin’ and White Castle are a few of the retailers who have entered into an agreement with MasterCard to pilot a voice ordering artificial intelligence (AI) for their restaurant drive-thrus. The solution allows customers to speak in natural language and is capable of processing complex orders and substitutions as if the customer were speaking with a human being.

Before the pandemic, chains like McDonald’s had already been looking for ways to blend voice-based automated ordering into their drive-thru experience. In 2019, McDonald’s acquired a speech-based AI startup to gain technology for the effort, according to Mashable SE Asia.

Such voice solutions are appearing in other places where touch screen kiosks have grown familiar. Multiple startups have begun to roll out speech-recognition technology that can be implemented on existing touch screen kiosks in restaurants and retail stores, allowing screen-based kiosks used for ordering, product search and other in-store tasks to reliably take voice commands.

Retail-adjacent areas like hotels and cruise ships, which have likewise been battered by the dangers and constraints of the novel coronavirus pandemic, are also introducing voice controls to try to make guests feel more comfortable, according to a PYMNTS article.

Previous to the pandemic, much of the discussion about voice controls and voice commerce centered around the proliferation of in-home devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. While these devices proved popular and received big pushes by their respective vendors, the amount of shopping done through the devices lagged.

Customer concerns over privacy and the difficulty of the buying process while using a smart speaker were two big reasons experts gave for the slow uptake on voice-based home shopping. In fact, experts pointed to the lack of screens as being a prime factor rendering shopping more difficult by voice assistant.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will the desire to avoid the touching surfaces drive mass use of voice-assisted kiosks, and might they replace touch screens altogether? What impact might this have on in-home use of the voice-assisted technology?

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21 Comments on "COVID-19 may push retailers to use voice assistants instead of touch screens"

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Neil Saunders

I can see more retailers exploring this option – but the key to success is ensuring it works accurately, quickly and intuitively. The video example shown in this article just looks annoying and, personally, I’d rather just touch the screen than shouting out a bunch of numbers and instructions. While I accept the need for some changes during a global pandemic, touch is an integral part of being human and I don’t think going overboard in trying to minimize it will be met with success unless the alternative is better.

Art Suriano

Forget the coronavirus, I’ve always had an issue touching the screens in the stores. They’re impossible to keep clean and, let’s face it, there are germs everywhere. One benefit of COVID-19 is that it created a lot more awareness. Investing in voice-assisted kiosks is wise, safer and, when perfected, more convenient. I think retailers will be smart to go in that direction. At some point COVID-19 will be behind us, and I caution retailers in what they invest in because when COVID-19 is gone or no longer a significant threat, I would hate to see retailers lose out on money spent during this period but investing in more voice-assisted kiosks will be a huge benefit now and in the future.

Jeff Weidauer

While voice-assisted solutions make sense in a world averse to direct contact, there is much work to be done in the recognition AI. My Echo still misunderstands me after four years if I ask for anything more than the weather. Voice is unlikely to speed up the transaction process for that reason. The bigger opportunity is voice on mobile where the phone has the chance to “learn” speech patterns and offers touch/voice combined.

Bob Amster

This will work well for those who are absolutely microbe phobic and for situations in which the spoken information is not personal. As long as spoken numbers can be used to respond to prompts, the voice-activated kiosks have a future in retail.

Ken Morris

The capabilities of near-field communications (NFC) will have a greater impact on retail than voice at this time. With NFC, the customer can store their various credit, debit, and loyalty cards within their cell phone’s virtual wallet. The increased consumer demand brought on by COVID-19 for touchless transacting will open the path for voice as well but this will take some time.

My colleagues and I believe retailers and restaurateurs will transition to bring your own device (BYOD) mobile payment or contactless “pay-at-table” technology. With contactless BYOD technology, customers can use any device to scan a QR code, read the menu, order and pay without touching. Voice is an evolution but perhaps more trouble than it’s worth today.

Scott Norris

Starbucks’s mobile app is the gold standard here and keeps getting better now with multiple payment options. ApplePay is getting stronger as well.

Gary Sankary

I think this technology has a ways to go before it’s ready for use at mass. I see (and experience) enough trouble with touch screens not working correctly. I can only imagine trying to navigate menus by voice command in a pubic place with other conversations all around. I could see myself screaming and taking my frustrations out on a kiosk, just like I sometimes do with poor Alexa at home.

Kim DeCarlis

New norms continue to be driven by the pandemic and as a result innovation and digital transformation have accelerated. As retailers strive to address customers’ health concerns, testing voice interaction is a logical step but, in addition to physical safety, information security will be key — particularly for payment information. And as familiarity with voice-activated technology and comfort with security increase, in-home adoption will grow.

Ralph Jacobson

Accurate voice-assisted kiosks (emphasis on “accurate”) are far more efficient and speedy than touch screens so, once again, convenience will win the game eventually at retail.

Ananda Chakravarty

There will be no shift to using voice assisted kiosks. There’s just not enough value, and there is a lack of privacy and challenges with Natural Language Processing when it comes to ordering. We will see more kiosks however – primarily to avoid engagement with cashiers (due to COVID-19) but these will remain touch based. It will be easier for retailers to set up regular cleaning of touch interfaces or even self-service equipment next to the interfaces such as wipes and sanitary napkins to wipe down hands after touching a screen. The effort would require retraining the consumer, having zero fault ordering tools and AI power to rapidly change orders and understand a quick shift. I don’t see this as an upcoming trend and I believe it will have limited effect on in-home voice assisted technology.

Doug Garnett

First, we had the dystopian idea of the “endless aisle” which captivated the tech press. Now we get to stand in the physical aisle say “No. Nails. Not nail remover.”

Even if there’s a drive to avoid touching things today, I can’t imagine this is the smart long term solution. After all, kiosks are usually rarely in working order for physical access. Now let’s add voice recognition in the store environment?

I’d recommend stores focus more on getting good help.

Ryan Mathews

So, full disclosure — I have been involved with, and an advocate of, voice-activated technologies for over 20 years, so I’m hardly unbiased. I believe that eventually the simplest interface always wins and voice is almost always the simplest interface, outside of implant or haptic technologies. So I fully expect its use will increase organically. What COVID-19 has done is accelerate the rate of introduction and acceptance of certain consumer-facing technologies including voice activation. That said, voice-activated systems have their own issues, but those have come a long way toward resolution since I was first introduced to Dragon, a voice-activated writing program that took about three days to set up and couldn’t be used if you had a cold, or were tired, or were in a room with odd acoustics, or 10,000 other things. Finally, I expect voice activation to proceed faster in home. Alexa, have you and Siri been arguing again?

Bindu Gupta

I think voice-assisted kiosks are good to have right now given the consumer psychology to avoid touching common surfaces but I anticipate this as a supplement to the touch screen experience once there is a vaccine. It depends on how effectively it is implemented and if it is helping the customers get through the transaction as quickly as possible. If there are too many hurdles, customers might abandon the use and move to more familiar options like the touch screen.

Cynthia Holcomb

I do not understand if the end game for voice-assisted kiosks is shouting commands into tall machines in a noisy environment, such as fast-food restaurants, bars, hotel lobbies, stores, etc. Does this solve the problem? Sure there’s no touch, but how about mental health? Human frustration has more friction than simply installing a hand sanitation station next to a touch screen kiosk. Wipe. Touch. Wipe. Next.

Sterling Hawkins

What matters most with any technology is that it works. A great customer experience is paramount to any any other factor that may or may not go with it. While we’ve made great leaps in voice technology, it’s still a little time before it could effectively replace touchscreens altogether. And depending on the retailer or restaurant, it may not be a one-or-the-other kind of decision, they can work well together or perhaps there could be situations where the consumer decides how they want to interact. Long story short, the pandemic is driving huge interest and investment in countless technologies, voice is definitely one of them.

Ken Lonyai

As the only BrainTrust member to have both developed kiosk software/hardware and voice enabled artificial assistants, I can say that some points my colleagues make are valid and others are way off.

For example human recognition of spoken words ranks below the best current AI recognition. But… lower tier AI and more importantly, hardware design that doesn’t account for environmental factors will undermine that.

Voice is not an interim technology, even for kiosks, because of COVID. Technology implementations in many planes are moving to both conversational and VUI (Voice User Interface) enablement.

Humans are multimodal in the way they communicate and the best uses of technology capture the same, not touch only, voice only, etc.

Nevertheless, the video example shown here is laughable. It’s absolute poor design. I’ve never even seen a touch application where a user would choose numbers to represent selections, so speaking them is asinine. I’m happy to give some pro bono advice to the owner of this installation just to help their customer’s have better UX.

+1 to Ken Lonyai, Sterling Hawkins, and Ryan Mathews. There are multiple issues here — the efficacy and location of kiosks in general, and the value of voice technology in retail. Is voice hands-free and thus germ-less? Yes. Will it recognize every voice that enters a store? Yes and no — it depends, of course, on your training set and your customers. Is it proper for kiosks? It’s a place-purpose-customer question. More important for retail in general: is voice a tool that — in customer service, in operations, and from the consumer’s kitchen — can drive quantifiable value? Hell yes, a truth being demonstrated right now in different ways by the world’s leading retailers as measured by revenue. That’s why a number of retailers are now supporting The Open Voice Network, a new non-profit, which is dedicated to developing global technical standards, ethical use guidelines, and quantifiable use cases for voice. If you’d like information on what we’re doing, and why leading retailers are involved, call me at +1 503 449 4628, or at
James Tenser
Welcome to noisy! There is no doubt in my mind that voice interactions will become ubiquitous over the next few years. We should not make the strategic error of handicapping present very early experiments as if this were already a mature technology. Voice interfaces and Natural Language Processing are getting a lot better, very fast. (Did you hear that, Alexa?) In the retail kiosk and POS environment, voice will be additive to touch, not a complete replacement. Good thing because food courts can have awful acoustics and outdoor locations resonate with wind noise and passing sirens and the like. Not long from now, however, smart electronic ears will be able to understand us better than people can, even in poor sonic conditions. Folks will decide how to interact in each encounter according to usability, convenience and privacy preferences — even mixing voice, touch, gestures, NFC card taps, and mobile connectivity in the same interaction. The AI digital entities still have a lot to learn until they can accurately interpret vaguely worded queries, understand accents, and… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

Those of us who have doubts about the technology, at least at this stage – background noise, difficulties with ESL speakers or heavy accents — will certainly see the adoption farther off (if ever). Those who DO have confidence have a tougher time because viability allows for adoption, but doesn’t guarantee it.

I’m naturally cautious, so I’ll caucus with the first camp at this stage: limited adoption in the near future … then we’ll see.

Brian Numainville

While contactless everything is hot at the moment due to the pandemic, I’m not sure voice recognition tech is where it needs to be for this to be more widely adopted. My Google and Amazon devices are wrong so often that I can’t imagine this is where it needs to be yet. Plus, in public places, privacy is also a concern. I’d rather just use contactless connectivity from my phone with another device and leave it at that until the AI is more accurate.

Shoppers, restaurant patrons and travelers are apprehensive right now, and are looking for retailers, foodservice operators and other service companies to reassure them that their health is taken extremely seriously. There are new lab-validated anti-microbial technologies available for digital signage and kiosks to keep customers and employees safe during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. These displays integrate anti-viral agents into the touchscreen manufacturing process and provide 24/7 germ protection. The glass technology has been proven effective against harmful viruses and bacteria such as Coronavirus, C. Diff, MRSA and E. Coli.

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