For many Apple aficionados, the October 2011 release of the iPhone 4S failed to impress – at least initially. Although Apple touted the 4S as the "most amazing iPhone yet," the device looked identical to the iPhone 4 and lacked anticipated features like a button-free interface and larger screen size.
The passing of Apple founder Steve Jobs during the premiere of the 4S consumed the oxygen surrounding the brand and distracted attention away from the features of the latest incarnation in the iPhone line; this, despite the fact that consumers were purchasing the device at a record rate.
But once the dust settled, it became apparent that the iPhone 4S was more than a mediocre upgrade, largely due to the inclusion of a potential game-changer in the mobile milieu: Siri, Apple's version of a personal digital assistant.
Unlike typical, incremental developments in human-machine interfaces, Siri may prove to be the most important advancement in consumer computing since the mouse gave users the ability to perform point-and-click navigation.
And for retailers, it's possible that Siri represents the first step down a path that will revolutionize the way consumers use their mobile device to shop.
Implications of Siri for Consumers
Even though it is available only in Beta on iPhone 4S, it's no exaggeration to say that Siri may be the killer app mobile commerce evangelists have been waiting for.
From a technical angle, Siri is essentially a two-way, voice-recognition application. Siri users can speak a command and receive a verbal response from their device. That feature alone is not all that impressive, as voice recognition is already an entrenched feature in many mobile platforms and other products.
But here's what makes Siri different: unlike other voice-recognition applications, Siri has the ability to access and transact with other applications and sources of information. By leveraging a broad range of user-specific information, Siri can act on a user's behalf.
So for mobile users, Siri really does play the role of a personalized digital assistant, a virtual partner with unfettered access to the user's profile settings, selected accounts and other personal data sources.
Although Siri's abilities are presently restricted to voice-based calendaring, texting, searching and e-mailing, it's all but guaranteed that future versions will have the capability to access other application programming interfaces (APIs), transforming the way consumers shop.
Let's say you're on your way to the office and you suddenly remember it's your wife's birthday, a detail you failed to recall before you left the house. Instead of waiting until you get to the office, you just tell Siri to contact 1-800-Flowers.com. After asking what you would like and describing your options, Siri will ask you to authorize the purchase and then have the vendor deliver your order to your wife's office by using the address contained in your contact list.
Or suppose you're in the mood for sushi on your way home from work. With a few, simple voice commands, Siri will identify the closest sushi joint, confirm your menu choices and pay for the order using your credit card account information. If the sushi bar delivers, your order could be waiting for you by the time pull in your driveway.
What makes Siri groundbreaking as a new customer touch point for retailers is how it removes friction form the shopping experience and truly enables consumer to shop from anywhere, anytime. In other words, Siri combines your personal objectives with your personal information to perform the legwork that is normally involved with a transaction.
Preparing for Siri Equipped Consumers
As Siri (and similar applications) gradually make their way into the hands of consumers, there are several capabilities retailers should have in place to prepare for an increasingly complex multichannel retailing environment.
• Virtual Payment Options. As a seamless transaction tool, Siri requires access to virtual payment options. Although Siri creates additional pressure for the development of virtual wallet solutions, interim solutions like secure and encrypted customer accounts are essential for making the brand more attractive for Siri purchases and delivering a streamlined mobile buying experience.
• Inventory Visibility. Siri's functionality is rooted in mobile search capabilities. Brands with higher SERP rankings will inevitably fare better than those who have failed to invest time and energy in non-branded SEO. However, the localization aspect of Siri (e.g. "find the closest pizza place") means that brands will also need to focus on optimizing search for geolocational inventory, i.e. your physical inventory will need to be visible in order for Siri to determine whether you have the user's brands in stock and ready to go out the door.
• Order Management. There's potential that Siri could ultimately become the universal customer service representative for smartphone users. Besides accessing product availability across channels, Siri will also be able to update an order placed through the retailer or even check its shipping status. Implementing an order management program is a pre-requisite and also the bedrock of any multichannel retailing strategy.
The full shape and scope of Siri's impact on retail will emerge over time. However, brands that neglect to lay the groundwork for Siri and other virtual assistant technologies may find themselves lagging behind in a retail landscape where brands are expected to offer an innovative shopping experience.
In particular, it's essential for retailers to consider the frictionless transaction benefits Siri delivers to mobile users. By thoroughly evaluating the implications of a seamless mobile transaction environment and orienting mobile channel development in that direction, retailers can begin the process of creating an intelligent response to one of the most intelligent mobile tools consumers have at their disposal.