Ecosystems

Alexa’s Future As a Built-In Roommate

Alexa smart home

After a certain age, most consumers are no longer really in the market for a roommate — unless of course they happen to be married to them. While there are certain segments of the population that extoll the longterm benefits of co-living with other adults, generally at some point most people outgrow the thrill of sharing a bathroom with someone else.

But an apartment that came with a roommate who would never steal food, never invite guests and would under no circumstances leave dishes in the sink — but would manage the calendar, call an Uber, order groceries, turn lights on and off, play just the right song at just the right time and tell jokes on demand? That’s a pretty significant upgrade to the normal roommate arrangement — and one that complexes like Brandon Place in Oklahoma City are hoping will be attractive to residents.

It’s why the units are wired from the ground up to be Alexa-compatible, with smart locks and key-coded entry, smart thermostats and even a complimentary Echo device to serve as a hub for the whole system (if residents don’t already have one of their own that they prefer to use). For tenants like those at Brandon Place, the smart-home upgrades at move-in are intended as a starting place — they can add other Alexa-controlled speakers, smart plugs and lights, depending on just how voice-controlled they want their apartment units to be.

It is a perk that gives apartment dwellers access to technology that might otherwise be difficult to install in a rental, and comes to places like Brandon Place care of Amazon’s Alexa Smart Properties team. Smart Properties isn’t the most recognizable part of Team Alexa, but it has been very busy behind the scenes over the last year — quietly partnering with home builders, property managers and hoteliers to push millions of Alexa smart speakers into newly-built housing, apartments, condos and hotel rooms nationwide.

About six months ago, Amazon announced its biggest Smart Home expansion via a third party to date — a partnership with the TRI Pointe Group, a builder of single family homes nationwide, to put Amazon-provided smart home technology into its new home stock.

“This expanded smart home offering currently being implemented across TRI Pointe Group’s six homebuilder brands will enhance our Home Smart suite of state-of-the-art home tech and automation features to harness the power of internet-connected devices,” Doug Bauer, CEO of TRI Pointe Group told PYMNTS at the time.

With Amazon Smart Home products incorporated into 25 of its home models, the brand was expected to expand the rollout. Apart from access to the smart home tech built into the housing, Customers who purchase an Amazon Smart Home will be scheduled for a consultation with an Amazon expert to customize the smart home experience and provide activation support.

Early demand for the program was so strong, Bauer said, that it wasn’t a difficult decision to expand the offer more broadly across the builder’s product line. If early indication hold consistent, he said, the addition of Amazon smart home technology will likely be a major sales driver.

“From busy families, we often hear about convenience and from homeowners who travel often, we hear about the peace of mind, through the ability of checking on their home while they’re away,” Bauer said. “Smart home features are a key differentiator between other new homes and matches what we find most buyers are looking for.”

And TRI Pointe Group is not alone in the home building world in taking a closer look at Alexa. Lennar Corp., the nation’s largest home builder by revenue (and second largest by units), began offering Amazon’s smart speakers in an unspecified portion of the 35,000 new homes it constructed in 23 states last year — and will continue to add them to homes this year and going forward.

‘Hey Alexa, Pay My Rent’

For rental property managers, who tend to have far more ongoing interactions with the people who go on to live in their units than developers, the addition of smart home technology does more than offer an inducement to push sales. It also creates an opportunity to better manage relationships with tenants.

Zego, a subsidiary of digital rent payment service PayLease, creates something of a digital starter kit for apartments looking to offer a smart offering to their tenants that comes with an Echo device and an app that allows them to control all of the smart home functions (lights, heat, etc). Last November Zego formally announced a partnership with Amazon to help bring Alexa into more apartment units.

The company, in addition to its Alexa skill, also offers a phone app — the companion piece to the skill — that allows tenants to request repairs or pay their rent directly. Those functions are separated today, but the eventual goal is to move all of that control into their Alexa skill.

“We envision a day when you can say ‘Hey Alexa, pay my rent,’ and it will transfer that money from a resident’s bank account,” PayLease CEO Dirk Wakeham told The Wall Street Journal.

Today Zego is in about 30,000 apartments across the U.S., and according to Wakeham, the goal is to be in 6 million within five years. The service, he noted, is designed to make the tenants experience less friction-filled, while also helping landlords stay up to date on their tenants.

“We can predict if residents are happy based on their digital interactions with the service, which gives us more information about whether they will renew their leases,” said Zego CEO Adam Blake. That can sound a bit like they are listening in on tenants to see if they sound happy — though Zego is adamant that is not the case. Instead, data signals given off from things like sentiments expressed in digital communications or whether they pay their rent on time tend to be important clues.

Moreover, making it easier to change door locks, remotely control temperature in unoccupied units or grant access to contractors are all major enhancements that can help reduce costs.

Smart homes are a growing business on the consumer side. According to IDC data, smart home devices (excluding TVs) are projected to go up 27 percent in 2019 over 2018, and 358 million smart speakers, thermostats, lights, home security and other devices will ship this year.

And the race to the be operating system behind those smart devices is increasingly intense. Amazon is not alone trying to have its voice assistant come pre-installed as a consumer roommate in a rental. Google is also partnering with builders and property managers, and has had some success.

KB Homes, the fifth largest builder in the U.S. by units, offers Google Assistant-powered systems to buyers who request them in some places, and at least in California development Google Assistant comes standard. Century Communities, the ninth-largest builder in the U.S., has begun including a Nest Hub in the more than 10,000 new homes it constructs every year, according to a Google spokeswoman.

While an assistant built in sounds convenient, there are some questions to be answered — one being whether consumers will like having their voice assistant chosen for them. If a consumer moving into an Alexa apartment is a blank slate, or is already an Alexa user — no problem. If the same customer is a Google Assistant user or an Apple die-hard who will talk to no virtual voice but Siri, on the other hand, that could be an issue.

Plus there is the sticky issue of consumer data privacy — and just how much tenants want their landlords learning about them via how they use an app or an Alexa skill. In an era when consumers are used to sharing data, they might actually be fine with it if they know about it. But, given the amount of data being gathered and distributed, they might not be aware of all the third-parties that are an invisible part of their interaction with Alexa (or the Google Assistant).

Still, it seems Alexa’s home invasion, so to speak, is underway and officially getting a boost from the builders and property managers of America looking for a boost in their efforts via the Alexa effect.

Whether it attracts, repels or fails to move consumers much at all remains to be seen.

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