- Automated checkout and other services that factor out employee-customer interaction could have a negative impact on shoppers, writes sociology professor Stacy Torres in a New York Times opinion piece.
- Elderly customers and others at risk of social isolation, in particular, benefit from interactions with cashiers, pharmacists and other employees.
- Even fleeting socialization can positively impact customers, writes Torres. She cited a bakery employee she knows who remembers many of her customers’ names and orders, as an example of a valuable employee who could go by the wayside if Amazon Go-like technology becomes the norm.
Amazon Go, which Torres cites as an example of potentially troublesome technology, is struggling to disrupt one store — let alone an entire industry — thanks to some persistent glitches. But other automated processes like order kiosks, checkout apps, online prescription fulfillment and e-commerce are already replacing the employee-customer interactions that she notes are so important to shoppers.
Folks in the food retail business might be reading this and think, “What gives?” Automated service, in addition to being faster and cheaper for retailers, is a priority for shoppers, too. Studies consistently show that speedier checkout is shoppers' most desired improvement in the stores where they shop. According to a recent Harris poll, 88% of shoppers say they want in-store checkouts to run faster. Half of those surveyed pointed to long lines and slow lanes as their top two hang-ups with the grocery shopping experience.
However, there’s also plenty to Torres’s assertion that consumers desire the social interaction that cashiers, pharmacists and other associates provide. A recent report from tech firm Interactions found that, in a survey of 1,000 shoppers, 62% said they wanted a store associate to greet them upon entering the store. Walmart, well known for its store greeters, axed the position in 2012. The retailer brought it back last year, realizing how valuable these employees are in lifting spirits, deterring theft and more.
Consumers certainly seem conflicted over the use of store automation, so what should retailers do? It’s important to remember that service is part of what defines the in-store shopping experience. With e-commerce sales growing but still comprising a small percentage of overall sales, that distinction is important. At the same time, a balancing act may be required to satisfy consumers’ desire for speed and convenience. A growing number of stores, including Sam’s Club and regional chain Macey’s, are offering their shoppers the option of using checkout-free payment apps or traditional cashier checkout.
Offering a choice between automated service and employee service could be key. Retailers should find the right balance for their customers. They should also make sure they’re training associates in every department to extend a friendly greeting to shoppers.