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Amazon’s voice-activated assistant adds skills

July 6, 2016 12:26 PM
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Amazon.com Inc. continues to lessen the need for a consumer to look at a screen to place an order.

With the latest round of updates for its Echo digital assistant device, Amazon has enabled Echo owners to place orders for an array of “tens of millions” of Prime-eligible products just by telling the device what they want to buy.

This is a significant expansion of the Echo’s voice-activated skill set. Previously, Echo owners could only instruct Alexa—the name of Echo’s digital assistant and the software Echo devices run—to reorder items they previously bought on Amazon.  The software then matched and called up product information stored in users’ accounts.

Now, however, even if a consumer has never ordered trash bags from Amazon, he can say, “Alexa, order me some trash bags,” and Alexa will find the product that best fits that description, tell  the shopper what it is and what it costs, and ask “Would you like me to order it?” The consumer can say no and Alexa will suggest another item, or say yes and Alexa places the order with Prime two-day shipping. The first product suggested—in this example a 90-count box of 13-gallon Glad tall kitchen drawstring trash bags selling for $15.59—is what Alexa calls its “best match.” Amazon did not immediately return an inquiry about how the Alexa software determines which products to offer as best match.

Amazon in June also reduced the need for Echo owners to use the Alexa mobile app to manage their device. Previously, users had to access the app to enable new voice-activated services—or “skills” as the Alexa software calls them—to increase Echo’s capabilities. Now, users can tell Alexa what new skills they want to enable. Amazon emails Echo users weekly with a list of new skills that have been added to the total set of 1,400 available skills.

Skills for the Echo are written by Amazon and other developers, including other e-retailers, to extend the system’s capabilities. Ride-sharing service Lyft, for example, added a skill last week that lets Echo users request a ride. 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., No. 57 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, added a skill in the spring that lets  customers  place orders verbally through devices running Alexa.

Amazon last month added 50 brands to the array of Dash buttons available to consumers. The Wi-Fi-connected plastic buttons offer another screenless way for consumers to order online. After an initial setup, consumers press a Dash button to order the associated product.  

Amazon is No. 1 in the Top 500 Guide.

 

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