Smart home: You’ve got the skills

Most consumers have no idea how much the smart home can do for them. That’s a golden opportunity for their local independent retailer. Paul Laville, group CEO of training specialist T21, has some ideas on how to get on board without spending a fortune


It was inevitable that Amazon was going to update and expand its Echo product range, and it was inevitable that when it did, I was going to get one for the home.

We’ve had a first-gen Echo in the office for some time, but it’s used mostly as a film prop and it’s been battered around a fair bit. Black Friday last year, being close to my birthday, provided the perfect excuse to furtively tap the ‘add to cart’ button and order up a lovely new Echo Plus for the kitchen.

A lovely new Echo Dot quickly followed and, would you believe it, a pack of Philips Hue light bulbs turned up on my doorstep, too. Now, thanks to a terrifying energy bill last quarter, we’re looking at getting a smart thermostat, and who knows what else might follow?

And we love it. We can turn the lights on by voice. I ask for a playlist and music starts. My kids pummel it with endless questions, searching for bizarre facts. We all help populate the weekly shopping list and we’ve started calling in recipes for dinner, bored of the same old same old.

I wish the Spotify integration was easier, but still, we’re suddenly living in a voice-controlled, partly-connected household. We don’t need to replace our appliances just yet, but when we do, I’ll be looking for an Alexa skill ahead of any fancy dispenser system and a big glass door.

A year ago, it would never have happened. The chief reason being that my wife was adamant such things were a luxurious surplus and there was little I could do to persuade her otherwise. What did persuade her in the end was the fact that most of her friends had some kind of Echo thing at home and they loved it.

In the press release for their 2017 Q3 results, published last October, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos stated that “customers have purchased tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices”. Tens of millions. Plural. So Alexa is in at least 20 million devices, most of them in the Echo portfolio. In the latest Q4 release, Mr Bezos adds an update: “We’ve reached an important point where other companies and developers are accelerating adoption of Alexa [through which] customers can control more than 4,000 smart-home devices”.

Voice control is no mere fad. It’s passed the early adoption stage and is cutting firmly into the mass market.

Surely then, if you’re an electrical retailer, you’d want to jump in, somehow. Wouldn’t you? Whether you love or hate Amazon and denounce the internet as a thing of evil, voice-controlled smart speakers are fast becoming ubiquitous. Importantly, they’re pulling in manufacturers, and new connected products and services, into peoples’ homes with them. They’re catalysing the smart home.

I guess the difficulty is partly in knowing where to start. With so much talk and hype, with every supplier you know pitching ‘dead certs’ and ‘no-brainers’ at you alongside a bunch of market forecasts, promising branded support (hopefully) and guaranteed supply into the 2020s, when the industry is wracked with uncertainty and crisis, deciding where you jump in with the smart home is going to call for some brave decisions.

But is there a jumping in point where the risk is minimal?

I think there is, and it begins with people who’ve already bought an Echo or similar device.

In a completely non-scientific survey, I asked some friends what they used their Google Home or Amazon Echo for. Pretty much everyone said they listened to the radio on it, many said they asked it what the weather was going to be like, and many said the kids asked it to tell them a joke now and then.

Nest thermostat

Is that all? And I got the answer: “Why? What else can it do?”

Face-palm moment.

It genuinely surprised me how few people I knew actually used their Echo for proper music streaming, or had even thought about plugging in a smart light bulb or thermostat. Who didn’t know even they could start a shopping list that downloads to their phone.

Even those who were more savvy, who did connect their Echos to other smart products, didn’t really know where else they could take it. And they hadn’t done a great job of the whole DIY smart-home thing anyway. Looking at their set-ups, and listening to how they’d gone about it, I felt like an electrician faced with a tangled mass of sparking spaghetti in a broom cupboard.

The point I’m getting at is that they needed advice. They needed to sit down with someone – an expert, showing them the possibilities smart home offers even the most ordinary household or home office, come to that. Wouldn’t it be great if that expert was their nearest independent electrical retailer? If all they had to do was talk to someone they already had a relationship with rather than try and hunt down the answers from dubious sources on the internet?

Sadly, when I type “where do learn about smart home?” into my search bar, my local indie retailer isn’t in the game. There’s one Cedia installer featured in the top 10 search results and the rest is all over place – a bunch of ‘experts’ pulling me away from where I, and all my friends, would prefer to go to learn about doing it right.

It doesn’t need massive investment to get involved with smart home. You can start small. Get yourself on Google AdWords, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and let your new and existing customers know that you’re the ones who can bring their Echos and Google Homes to life.

You don’t have to rebuild your shop, but you can merchandise it in a different way, maybe set part of it up as an experiential smart home with the connected products you sell.

Hold events. Write blogs. Upload videos to YouTube. Most importantly, train your staff to sell like consultants, to offer advice yes, but to sell solutions, too. Be the expert, the customer’s best friend, but always keep an eye on the sale.