05 August 2022
Roomba Prime?: iRobot should feel right at home with Amazon
With its acquisition of the robot vacuum maker, Amazon gains voice, membership and more.
With its acquisition of the robot vacuum maker, Amazon gains voice, membership and more.
Like the workplace and businesses, the home is becoming a setting where technologists are increasingly creating new ways to automate routine tasks. At the same time, the value of the smart home is growing in the eyes of the largest tech companies as they seek to play a role in more facets of consumers' lives.
That's apparent in the latest M&A news from Amazon: The company is set to acquire iRobot, the Bedford, Massachusetts-based maker of the Roomba robot vacuum. Valued at $1.7 billion, it’s the fourth-largest-ever acquisition for Amazon.
“We know that saving time matters, and chores take precious time that can be better spent doing something that customers love,” said Dave Limp, SVP of Amazon Devices. “Over many years, the iRobot team has proven its ability to reinvent how people clean with products that are incredibly practical and inventive—from cleaning when and where customers want while avoiding common obstacles in the home, to automatically emptying the collection bin. Customers love iRobot products—and I’m excited to work with the iRobot team to invent in ways that make customers’ lives easier and more enjoyable.”
The acquisition has potential benefits for Amazon on a number of levels. To be sure, Amazon has incentive to add a product that is in a popular category in its marketplace. Consumer electronics continues to be a big seller on the ecommerce site, and Amazon already makes many of its own home gadgets like Alexa-powered Echo devices, Ring doorbells and the various Fire TV products. Roomba deals are already a fixture of Prime Day, and iRobot also makes mops, air purifiers and a handheld vacuum that Amazon can add to its portfolio.
A Roomba in action. (Photo via iRobot)
But there appears to be more at play here. Just look at how the Roomba has evolved.
iRobot first introduced the Roomba in 2002, and it became something of an early YouTube star thanks to videos of cats hilariously interacting with it (and running from it). The company has since made plenty of improvements. The latest model has a computer vision-powered operating system that recognizes over 80 objects to avoid around a house, and even has features to keep pets away.
The Roomba updates have a couple of things that are particularly interesting for Amazon:
Voice commands: The Roomba OS understands about 600 voice commands, including many from Amazon’s own Alexa. As iRobot detailed last year, a person can use voice tech via Alexa to send a Roomba to clean around a certain object, schedule a cleaning and provide an update about a robot’s status. It also picks up a hunch that people are away from home, and starts cleaning.
The existing voice-powered capabilities of the Roomba indicate there’s room to go even further with these commands. Even with the features already in place, it’s not hard to see the Roomba essentially becoming a voice assistant that can travel around the house, and perform tasks. Alexa is also becoming an independent communicator between human and robot. It is letting people know about the status of a Roomba, while also telling the Roomba what to do.
Maps and data: As the New York Times reported in 2017, the Roomba creates maps of a home, and collects data to help it navigate as it vacuums. This data can also be valuable to Amazon, not just to improve the Roomba and other robots it makes, but for other home products it sells and even for its growing advertising service.
Subscription: Yes, Roomba has a membership program. The iRobot Select membership for the latest model of Roomba provides accessories that are sent automatically when needed, a protection plan and support. Given the success of Prime, Amazon tends to like memberships and has a good track record in this area, too.
This points to the reason why iRobot would be particularly interesting to Amazon. As with all things Amazon, it points toward the Prime subscription service. Let’s review the company’s recent moves:
While the value of the Grubhub and retail partnerships to Prime are self-evident, it’s particularly interesting that the One Medical and iRobot acquisitions have arrived just weeks apart. They’re in disparate categories, but could be related when considering the role of Prime. It’s not just a service for two-day shipping and returns for ecommerce, but rather functions as the engine of Amazon’s ecosystem, providing the access point for its consumer services and easy repeat buying. The company is increasingly adding new benefits to the membership, in part to increase its value (especially after raising prices in the US and UK this year), as well as make it attractive to new members.
One Medical is a subscription service, and Amazon talked about its desire to invent the future of healthcare. With that acquisition, primary care and telehealth could be another addition to a Prime membership. It’s a big step, given the notorious complexity and entrenched interests within the American healthcare system. but Amazon appeared to be signaling a big play with the acquisition. In the July 21 announcement of the deal, SVP of Amazon Health Services Neil Lindsay said the company sees healthcare as “high on the list of experiences that need reinvention.”
“We love inventing to make what should be easy easier and we want to be one of the companies that helps dramatically improve the healthcare experience over the next several years,” Lindsay said. “Together with One Medical’s human-centered and technology-powered approach to health care, we believe we can and will help more people get better care, when and how they need it. We look forward to delivering on that long-term mission.”
A Roomba cleaning up. (Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash)
With iRobot, there are signs that Amazon is looking to add smart home as a key tenet of Prime, as well. For one, the Roomba could become a Prime benefit in its own right. With an existing subscription service, there’s an obvious tie-in, similar to Grubhub. The data the Roomba provides would in turn feed Prime's internal systems to learn more.
But Amazon merely partnered with Grubhub, and may have been able to do the same with Roomba, given the existing relationship. With Amazon acquiring iRobot's team and other technology outright, it might also be something more. Recall that in Amazon's announcement of the deal, SVP of Devices Dave Limp uses the word "invent" three times when referencing iRobot, saying that the team has developed advances in "practical" areas "from cleaning when and where customers want while avoiding common obstacles in the home, to automatically emptying the collection bin." This could be Amazon-speak. Or it could be signs of a new wave of capabilities coming.
Where could this be heading?
Here's a prediction: Think about it as part of Prime's existing services. Triggered by a command in a Ring doorbell, a Roomba might pick up a package or order at the door. Importantly, the Roomba is also there to receive the delivery while customers aren't home.
Amazon has focused on logistics for the last mile. The Roomba could pick up the last few feet.
With Alexa’s capabilities, it can update the person that the order was received. With further advances, Alexa may also be able to tell the Roomba to perform this task, and others.
Alexa will be the brain of the smart home, while the Roomba does the work.
Adobe Analytics looked at how ecommerce shopping habits shifted in 2022.
Ecommerce is showing staying power with consumers following the pandemic, leaving room for the growth of more product categories and digitally-enabled ways to shop.
That’s the takeaway from new data released by Adobe Analytics this week that offers the latest evidence to help understand shifts in digital shopping behavior that accompanied the lifting of pandemic restrictions in 2022.
While there is evidence that more people returned to stores in 2022, Adobe found continued growth in several areas of ecommerce that spiked during the pandemic, including grocery and Buy Now Pay Later. At the same time, a slowdown in curbside pickup and uptick in mobile shopping offer a reminder that behavior will continue to evolve.
Here's a look at the data:
There are signs that consumers are turning online to buy more types of products. Categories like home furnishings and grocery previously struggled to take off in ecommerce, but both saw notable growth in 2022.
Home furnishings grew 10.2% year-over-year, reaching $126 billion in spend. This continued in February 2023, with 12.9% sales growth to $9.4 billion.
Grocery, which saw a surge during the pandemic, saw continued growth of 10.8% in 2022, reaching $86.8 billion. In February 2023, there was even more pronounced growth of 26.7% YoY, driving $8.4 billion in spending.
Not every category saw such a dramatic uptick. Electronics, which consistently has the largest share of ecommerce spend, grew 4% year-over-year in 2022. Meanwhile, apparel fell 3.8% year-over-year.
“Ecommerce demand has remained resilient in an uncertain economic environment, driven in part by lasting pandemic habits where consumers had no choice but to leverage online food and home furnishing shopping services,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement. “Now consumers have embraced the rich ecommerce experiences that made them feel comfortable getting these necessities delivered to their doorsteps, making these categories new growth drivers in the digital economy.”
The pandemic ecommerce boom also led consumers to embrace new types of digital shopping experiences, from how they paid to how they received items.
In this area, there are also signs of continued expansion. Buy Now Pay Later, which allows shoppers to pay in installments, had a fast rise in 2020 and 2021 amid the ecommerce boom. Expansion continued as a higher cost of living due to inflation left consumers seeking to spread out payments. In 2022, the share of online purchases made with BNPL continued to grow at a rate of 14% year-over-year, while revenue grew 27%.
Adding to evidence of staying power, BNPL is proving to be popular in the categories showing the most growth. In the first two months of 2023, groceries’ share of BNPL grew 40%, while home furnishings grew by 38%.
“The rise of Buy Now Pay Later usage for groceries tells us that consumers are likely making bigger purchases online to take advantage of special promotions and stock up on staples, thus managing living expenses in more flexible ways,” Pandya said. “The strong online growth of home furnishing purchasing is expected to bolster Buy Now Pay Later adoption, given the higher ticket prices in this category.”
Price is also playing a role. According to Adobe’s Digital Price Index data from January 2019 through February 2023, share increased in the cheapest pricing tier for categories such as groceries (35.6%) and electronics (57.1%).
The pandemic also introduced more shoppers to fulfillment methods that blended ecommerce and stores. One of these was curbside pickup, which was a must-have option for retailers amid the health emergency that required distancing. But this practice has seen a slowdown. In 2021, 23% of online orders from retailers who offered curbside pickup used this option. In 2022, it fell to 19%, followed by a further fall to 17% in the first two months of 2023. However, there are still more signs of interest in grocery, which was a prime use of curbside pickup. That category grew 8% year-over-year in early 2023. By contrast, electronics grew only 2%.
Many retailers now have curbside pickup, and that's unlikely to go away. Rather, it is now best considered one of a number of options that retailers are offering consumers who want to have choices, alongside in-store pickup and local delivery.
The return to stores didn't replace ecommerce. Rather, the two channels are now blended more than ever before. As shoppers move across physical and digital retail, they are embracing mobile devices that help to connect the two. Adobe noted that the 2022 holiday season marked a “turning point” for mobile shopping, as a majority (51%) of Cyber Week sales were made using smartphones for the first time. This trend is expected to continue. By December 2023, Adobe expects smartphones to drive the majority of sales every month.
Yet there’s a gap between the largest retailers and smaller retailers in growth. Retailers with over $1 billion in annual sales are driving 38% more visits that result in purchases than retailers making $10-50 million in annual sales. For smaller retailers, share of revenue is also 8.6% lower.
It underscores how there are still plenty of opportunities to expand and improve digital commerce. The pandemic proved to be a great leap forward for retailers introducing ecommerce capabilities, but it is not the end of the expansion.