Amazon rolls out Alexa-powered voice shopping experience in India

Amazon today rolled out an Alexa-enabled voice-powered shopping feature in India as the e-commerce giant looks for new ways to engage with customers in one of its key overseas markets.

The American giant said the feature, currently rolling out to Android users, is available “primarily in English,” though it understands proper nouns and regional words across various languages.

“As we brought this functionality to Indian customers, we built custom functionality to cater to India’s unique requirements. We built this keeping the Indian customer at the center, optimizing for myriad accents and products relevant to the Indian customer,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch.

This is the first time Amazon is bringing this feature outside of the U.S., the spokesperson said.

Customers will be able to use Alexa to search for items on the e-commerce platform, add them to the cart and proceed to checkout — by saying commands such as “Alexa, show me sarees,” “Alexa, add saree to my cart” and “Alexa, go to checkout.”

Once the order has been placed, users can check the whereabouts of the order through voice as well, by asking “Alexa, where is my delivery?”

Amazon has claimed in the past that its voice-enabled shopping feature is gaining traction, but according to one 2018 report, most users were not showing great appetite for this experience.

But India, where the company has vast presence and has invested over $5.5 billion in local businesses, may provide the company with some breakthrough.

As hundreds of Indians came online in the last decade, many have gravitated toward voice to engage with apps and internet services and make searches, as they are not comfortable with typing in English. Last year, Google reported that voice queries had grown by 270% over a year in India.

“Recognizing the opportunities, several well-known brands have enabled voice-activated search, including ride sharing apps, e-commerce sites, telcos, and car brands, to name a few,” it wrote in a blog post.

Chinese firms rush to bring 5G smartphones to India

India is unlikely to have any substantial coverage of 5G until at least the end of next year, with telecom operators in the country yet to participate in a spectrum auction. But that hasn’t stopped Chinese vendors Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi from bringing 5G-enabled smartphones to the world’s second largest handset market.

Xiaomi, Vivo’s sub-brand iQoo and Oppo’s sub-brand Realme have all moved in tandem to unveil their 5G smartphones in the last week. While Xiaomi, which has been the top handset vendor in India for more than two years, only showcased its recently unveiled 5G-enabled MiMix Alpha smartphone at several of its physical stores in the country, the other two companies have moved to launch new phones.

Vivo, India’s second largest phone vendor, launched the iQoo 3, which features a 6.44-inch display with screen resolution of 1080 x 2400 pixels, 4,440 mAh battery (with support for 55W fast charging ), and runs Android 10. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, coupled with 8GB of RAM and 128GB storage. It sports four rear cameras — 48MP main shooter, 13MP telephoto, 13MP ultra-wide and 2MP depth-sensor — and a 16MP selfie sensor.

The phone’s prices start at 36,990 Indian rupees ($515), which goes up to 44,990 ($627) Indian rupees for variants with additional storage and memory.

Realme, which is giving the top phone makers a run for their money in India, launched the X50 Pro 5G that features a 6.44-inch display of screen resolution and 1080 x 2400 pixels with support for 90Hz refresh rate. It is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 SoC, coupled with 12GB of RAM and a 4,200 mAh battery with 65W Super Dart charging support.

On the photography front, it houses a 65MP primary shooter, 8MP ultra-wide sensor, 12MP telephoto shooter and a 2MP portrait sensor. On the front is a setup of duo-selfie sensors of 32MP and 8MP.

The Realme X50 Pro 5G is priced at 37,999 Indian rupees ($530), which goes as high as 44,999 Indian rupees ($627) for variants with additional storage and memory.

Executives at the companies said that the rationale behind launching a 5G phone so ahead of time was to offer future-proof devices. Additionally, Qualcomm also requires phone vendors to use X55 5G modem if they want to use its flagship Snapdragon 865 SoC.

An executive with Poco, which recently spun out of Xiaomi, also chimed in:

Apple to begin online sales in India this year, open first retail store in 2021

For a decade, Apple has solely relied on third-party sellers, stores and marketplaces to sell its products in India. That will begin to change this year.

At the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, chief executive Tim Cook told investors that Apple will open its online store in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, at some point this year, and set up its first flagship brick-and-mortar store next year.

“I’m a huge believer in the opportunity in India,” said Cook. “It’s a country with a vibrancy and demographics that are just unparalleled.”

TechCrunch reported last month that Apple was planning to open its online store in Q3 this year and was unlikely to be able to have its brick-and-mortar store ready in the country this year.

India, perhaps the last great growth market for American technology giants, has been a conundrum for Apple and several firms that sell premium items.

It’s a big market that continues to report growth, but most people in the country can’t afford Apple’s products. In fact, the vast majority of smartphones that ship in India carry a price tag of $150 or lower, according to research firm Counterpoint.

For Apple, the other challenge has been the heavy import duty that New Delhi levies on electronic items. This has made iPhone even more expensive for people in India, as the company passes the additional cost to customers.

Apple has attempted to broaden its appeal in India by looking to reduce prices of its handsets. For years, it urged the government to provide it with some tax benefits. When those talks did not materialize, Apple moved to do something that all the Chinese phone makers have done in India: assemble smartphones locally.

New Delhi provides several incentives to companies that assemble electronic items locally. Two years into the process, Apple contractors Foxconn and Wistron are assembling a range of iPhone models in India, and that has lowered the prices for a number of models (except those in the current-generation lineup.)

These moves have already proven useful for the company. Apple shipped close to 925,000 iPhone units in India in the quarter that ended in December, research firm Canalys estimated. That figure, up 200% year-over-year, was the iPhone-maker’s best year in the country to date, the research firm added.

Madhumita Chaudhary, an analyst with Canalys, said Apple’s decision to become more aggressive with pricing — partnering with banks to offer more incentives to customers — helped the company improve its position in a market with 99% Android smartphones.

Apple has also held discussions with content studios to bulk up its movie and TV show offerings for the Indian audience. Three years ago, for instance, it was in late stages of talks to acquire the Indian business of Eros Now for $300 million — something which has not been previously reported — with an option to expand its stake in the publicly listed global company, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told TechCrunch a few months ago.

But the deal did not materialize.

TechCrunch also reported last month that Cook may plan an India visit for the opening of the online store. Apple did not comment on that story.

India eased sourcing norms for single-brand retailers last year, which paved the way for companies like Apple to open online stores before they establish a presence in the brick-and-mortar market.