business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

We refer to Alexa as the one “always cooperative voice” in our household. Yes, I’m talking about the Alexa behind the Amazon Echo, a wireless, voice-activated computer/speaker that can be used to access a variety of products and services.

The Echo was a Christmas present from my daughters to their dad for instant access to music playlists, sports scores, breaking news and the weather. The trouble is, now everyone wants Alexa’s attention, often at the same time.

To be honest, I at first considered the Echo to be just another speaker. But with each day we are all finding Alexa more indispensable. Rather than seeking out my phone and reading glasses, I turn to Alexa for recipe assistance or to check my calendar. My twenty-something daughters can ask Alexa to call an Uber or have a Domino’s Pizza delivered. We all count on Alexa to settle pressing debates about baseball statistics, movies and how to make a perfect Mojito.

As one friend noted, you know you’re hooked on Alexa when you start asking a 20-year old Bose Wave radio to turn up the volume, and then are annoyed when it doesn’t.

What I find fascinating is the increasing number of “skills” (think apps) now available through Alexa, which have skyrocketed from 135 in January to more than 1,000 today.

The obvious is the link to Amazon ecosystem itself, and the ability to ask Alexa to order digital music and re-order Amazon Prime-eligible physical items from your history through one-click shopping, and to place new items in your cart.

Homeowners with smart home technology can ask Alexa to dim the lights or close the garage door. Capitol One customers can check their bank balances. You can also plan a vacation or check flight status through Kayak, and monitor your physical exercise with Fitbit.

If Alexa is near the kitchen, you can say “Alexa, ask Campbell’s Kitchen what’s for dinner?” and the soup giant will walk you through five daily recipes. Quaker Oatmeal developed a skill to help users find recipes for overnight oats, after its social media team noticed a resurgence in interest in the age old tradition of cooking oats at night and eating the dish cold in the morning.

I think there is a huge opportunity for savvy retailers and merchandisers to develop skills that would make Alexa indispensable in the kitchen. I’m envisioning a skill that would help plan meals, create an online shopping list, place the shopping order and provide step-by-step cooking instructions. Pair Alexa with the new $6,000 Samsung Family Hub refrigerator which lets you check your fridge’s contents through your smartphone, and there’s no excuse for not having ingredients for a perfect meal.

As the least technology-savvy member of our household, I always associated the idea of a “smart home” with “The Jetsons” (for those old enough to remember animated sitcom of a futuristic family). But with Alexa cooperating from the countertop, speaking with that cool, cooperative voice that makes one utterly at ease with the whole idea of a smart home, I’m starting to see the possibilities. And they seem more seductive with every passing day.

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