Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Not content with gobbling a growing chunk of retail shopping, Amazon is moving to the next phase of its commerce takeover: Helping more people shop without thinking. 

In the latest front of the Amazon Everywhere mission, the company on Thursday announced two new models of its Echo, a voice-activated speaker first introduced in late 2014. The $180 device, which channels the voice-controlled assistant Alexa, lets users ask "Do I need an umbrella today?" It also reads news headlines aloud while they're getting ready for work in the morning. In what may be a paragon of technology-enabled laziness, users can even ask the Echo to order pizza from Domino's.

The Echo has become something of cult hit, at least among technologies. (Amazon has even hosted "hackathons" for software tinkerers to reprogram the Echo's voice-activated technology to do all manner of things.) In a sign of how seriously Amazon is taking its project, the company bought a Super Bowl commercial this year to feature the Echo. 

Membership Has Its Privileges
Amazon's central strategy is to lure people to Prime, the $99-a-year shopping club that spurs members to buy more goods from Amazon.
Source: Consumer Intelligence Research Partners

The new less-expensive models -- a $90 speaker connector called "Dot" and the $130 portable Amazon Tap -- shows Amazon isn't content with keeping the Echo as a niche product but wants to reach many more people. It's the same niche-becomes-mass tactic that Amazon employed with its Kindle hardware, which started with a single electronic reader in 2007 and now includes more than a half dozen models ranging from an $80 e-reader to a $230 tablet meant to compete with the iPad. 

As with all Amazon's hardware splurges, the Echo is a means to an end. They are Jeff Bezos's sneak attack to spread online shopping to every nook of the home.

Run out of toothpaste while brushing your teeth? You can tell the Echo to reorder a couple tubes of Crest from Amazon without having to crack open a laptop or pick up a smartphone. It's the same strategy behind Amazon's Dash buttons, which are Wi-Fi connected pieces of plastic that users can affix to a washing machine or a kitchen cupboard, allowing them to press a button to automatically order more Tide or macaroni and cheese from Amazon. The company this week also announced a water pitcher with Brita that can automatically order replacement water filters once they've reached their end of life.

What's better than an "everything store?" A store that buys you everything, before you even think twice about it. 

The central cog of this mission is, of course, Amazon's Prime shopping club. The more people the company signs up for Prime, the less likely they are to shop anywhere else. Echo, Dash and other Amazon efforts to seed its digital shopping agents everywhere help the company prove the benefits of the $99-a-year service to harried consumers. 

Like most things about secrecy-shrouded Amazon, sales of the Echo are a mystery, but people who have bought the Echo generally give it high marks. The Echo's average customer rating on Amazon's website is 4.4 stars out of five, better than the ratings for all of Amazon's Fire tablets. 

So far, there are signs Echo is generating more purchases on Amazon. People who owned an Echo on average bought three times as many items as the typical shoppers on Amazon, according to data from Slice Intelligence. It's unclear, of course, if the pattern will hold as Echo devices get snapped up beyond the first wave of loyalists. 

It's also intriguing to think how having more Echo owners might help Amazon with its expanding ambitions in music and audio. The company has been working to expand the exclusive programming for its Audible audiobooks service and podcasts, my Bloomberg colleagues Lucas Shaw and Spencer Soper reported recently.

Amazon has already made sure the Echo can play music from popular digital music services including Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio. Having the gadget in many more homes could be a way for Amazon to push its own audio services, just as Amazon's Kindle tablets and Fire TV Web-streaming devices give prime position to the Web video service that is included with Prime. 

Amazon's sorties into the consumer gadget world don't always succeed. The Fire smartphones were an embarrassing flop. But by finding devices that play to Amazon's ambition to erase even tiny barriers to shopping online, the company has found its hardware sweet spot. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net