In his 2018 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos wrote about the Fire phone: “As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle.”
The Fire phone didn’t set the world on fire. However, Amazon repurposed the Fire Phone’s voice-recognition software to release the first generation of the Echo and other popular products. There are now hundreds of millions of Alexa devices out there with customers around the world.
“There’s a direct line between the Fire Phone and the Echo family of devices,” says Juston Western, a senior solutions architect for the Alexa Smart Reorders program. “Our takeaways from the Fire Phone gave us a head start in the voice assistant space.”
In this article, Western talks about how Alexa launched the Smart Reorders feature from one such small experiment that scaled to something big.
Alexa Smart Reorders enables customers to receive notifications when supplies for their smart home devices (such as batteries for a Ring security motion sensor, or detergent pods for a smart dishwasher) are running low. In addition to receiving notifications, customers can also ask Alexa to place orders for those consumables for their smart devices automatically.
During Alexa Live 2022, Amazon announced that the Alexa Smart Reorders program has experienced a 100% YoY growth rate since the program launched in 2019. In addition, over 99% of customers that receive a low inventory notification or automatic reorder through Alexa Smart Reorders continue to use the feature. For device makers, Amazon announced a simplified interaction model for low supply notifications, and a Device Management Extension that allows device makers to deep link to their device settings page. In addition, Replenishment Personalization will enable device makers to access approved customer replenishment activity data from within their skills. Combined, these features will provide a much richer and consistent customer experience between the device maker’s app and the Alexa app.
“Smart Reorders are intended to simplify household chores and tasks for our customers,” says Western. “With this program, Alexa only provides notifications when a customer actually needs to replace or replenish their consumables, all while getting the same discount as other programs like Subscribe & Save.”
While Subscribe & Save sends customers replacement items based upon elapsed calendar time, Smart Reorders automatically purchases a replacement only when they’re running low. “For someone like me who travels frequently, each month tends to be different in terms of how fast I go through paper towels or bottled water at my house. Smart Reorders complements that variability in rate of consumption quite nicely.”
Smart Reorders is the latest example of a feature that brings Alexa’s vision of ambient computing to life – where technology steps in to help you when you need it, and recedes into the background when you don’t. The vision is clearly resonating with customers. During Alexa Live 2022, Amazon also announced that there are over 300 million smart home devices connected to Alexa, and over thirty percent of smart home interactions are initiated by Alexa, without the customer having to do or say anything.
From Dash Buttons to Smart Reorders
“The genesis of Smart Reorders and the low supply notification program dates back to 2015,” says Western.
The first iteration of what eventually came to be Smart Reorders was a physical button called a Dash Button that Amazon customers could configure in their homes to place orders for a specific consumable. Users could press the Dash Button to place an order for more of that product instantly.
“I outfitted my flat with more than two dozen Dash Buttons—one for tissue paper, one for coffee, and one for my laundry pods,” says Western. “The idea was to take that Buy Now one-click shopping experience from the Amazon Shopping app into other areas of the home.”
Although Amazon sold a significant number of Dash Buttons, the team felt that there was room for improvement.
“Dash Buttons were convenient: however, the customer still had to have an awareness of their inventory, and they had to remember to push the button,” says Western. At the same time, voice shopping through Echo devices started to become more common, and the team began exploring ways to lean into this new interaction model.
Bringing Voice-Based Technology to Non–Device Makers
Western and the Alexa Home Health and Replenishment team saw these challenges as an opportunity to create a better product. “We wanted to build on the underlying technology that powered Dash Buttons,” says Western.
Prior to Smart Reorders, Western worked in a technical role as part of the team that launched the first generation of the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Throughout his career, he has been motivated by the prospect of supporting device makers in their journeys to unlock the potential of voice-based technology.
“The Dash Button actually piqued a lot of interest from companies in the consumer packaged goods industry,” says Western. “We saw that interest as an opportunity to bring this technology to device makers that had no experience in manufacturing smart home devices.” Amazon also developed the Alexa Connect Kit solution to make it easier for these companies to get up & running with a connected device without needing to stand up entirely new cloud infrastructure.
The Alexa team sunset the concept of a physical button. Instead, the team pivoted toward the idea of supporting convenience for its customers by delivering a predictive feature that leveraged the Alexa technologies. In keeping with Amazon’s philosophy of consistently enabling earth’s largest selection, the team also worked closely with alongside several consumer packaged goods companies so Alexa customers could set up Smart Reorders for items from their favorite household brands.
“Our Replenishment Personalization and Device Management Extension features are great examples of how Amazon is receptive to the needs of our enterprise customers,” says Western. “Several companies we were working with told us that there were too many steps involved in configuring Smart Reorders, so we’ve leaned into this simplified flow where customers can setup Smart Reorders in just a few taps.”
The Alexa Smart Reorders team also paid painstaking attention to making the customer experience for Alexa users as seamless as possible. To give just one example, they developed a feature to allow customers to respond with a simple, “Yes” when Alexa notifies them via voice that they may be running low on an item, and asks if they’d like to order a replacement.
“Dash Buttons were a great idea,” says Western. “However, the Smart Reorders program is an excellent example of how Amazon is not scared to move on from ideas. Instead, we build on them to make something even more delightful for customers.”