Letting Alexa do your shopping could cost you

Anick Jesdanun
Associated Press

In the name of convenience, Amazon and Walmart are pushing people to shop by just talking to a digital assistant.

Shopping by voice means giving orders to the Alexa assistant on Amazon’s Echo speaker and other devices, even if your hands are tied up with dinner or dirty diapers. And next month, Walmart will start offering voice shopping, too, with the Google Assistant on the rival Home speaker.

Such voice shopping hasn’t really caught on yet, but if it does, look out — you might never know if it’s offering you the best deal. Because these devices can’t say much without tiring your ears, voice shopping precludes some of the savvy shopping practices you may have relied on to find the best bargains.

You’d be leaving much of the buying decision to Amazon, Walmart or other retailers.

Amazon has had more than a year’s head start, and dominates voice shopping. Google introduced shopping to Home in February, letting people order essentials from more than 40 retailers like Target and Costco under its Google Express program. Its partnership with Walmart means hundreds of thousands of items will be available to customers in late September.

With websites and apps, many customers place items in the cart, but change their minds before completing the order, said Lauren Beitelspacher, a marketing professor at Babson College in Massachusetts. Voice shopping eliminates those intervening steps.

And with Amazon so far ahead, voice shopping with Alexa is another way of getting you hooked on Amazon. Although Amazon allows some third-party ordering through Alexa, including pizza from Domino’s and hotels through Kayak, general shopping is limited to Amazon’s own store. If Alexa orders diapers for you just as you run out, for instance, Amazon locks in the order before you have a chance to visit Walmart.

“You can’t get away from Amazon,” Beitelspacher said. “I don’t know if gimmick is the right word, but (voice shopping) is part of a strategy to be omnipresent in consumers’ lives.”

Ask Alexa to buy something, and it presents you with something you’ve bought before or an educated guess based on some undisclosed mix of price, satisfaction rating and shipping time. Amazon won’t provide more details. You can get a product’s average customer-satisfaction rating, but not specific reviews.

Brian Elliott, general manager of Google Express, says that with most affiliated retailers, personalization occurs as the assistant learns shoppers’ preferences, but the integration with Walmart will happen more quickly.

Amazon’s website gives you a lot of information about most products, from color options and sizes to the specific reasons other customers hated a product you’re considering. You’re able to compare similar items and choose something cheaper if you’re willing to sacrifice some features or take a chance on an unknown manufacturer.

And, of course, you can also compare Amazon’s prices with those of other online merchants.

But with Amazon’s voice shopping, it’s back to what the company’s representative recommends. Alexa can handle only a portion of Amazon’s full catalog, and its interactions with shoppers are constrained by the fact that listening and speaking can be a lot slower than reading and clicking.

Amazon says voice shopping has grown in the year-plus it’s had it, though it wouldn’t release figures.