Digitalized stores are not glorified vending machines

Blog post author
Oskar Jacobsson
October 26, 2022

It’s no secret that customer behavior is changing. The challenge for retailers is to understand what customers want and deliver it. But getting into the mind of today’s shoppers isn’t as straightforward as you might expect. 

For example, what are we to make of these two apparently contradictory statistics? 

  1. 75% of customers prefer to self-serve. 
  1. 75% of customers want more human contact in stores. 

On the face of it, that makes no sense. How can customers want both less human contact and more? And how can retailers address those two demands? Let’s dive a little deeper. 

Quality interaction counts 

It’s important to understand that not all interactions are the same. Let’s take three examples. 

  1. Paying for an item. 
  1. Asking for recommendations or advice. 
  1. Trying to locate an item. 

Paying for purchases is a simple, routine transaction. The store associate isn’t providing much in the way of value, except perhaps when bagging groceries. This function can easily be replaced by self checkout. 

Asking for recommendations is entirely different. Here’s where a store associate can offer maximum value. They can take the time to understand the customer’s needs and help them make a purchase decision. 

Finding an item is somewhere in between. Maps and wayfinders can work well, or an endless aisle can tell a customer if an item’s out of stock. However, some customers may prefer to have a store associate take them to the right shelf or offer to check availability. 

What customers are telling us is that they want more quality interactions, and fewer routine ones. When it comes to checkout, they prefer to self-serve. When they have questions or need advice, they want to speak to a person. 

In other words, they want fewer cashiers and more customer service.  

Understand what your customers are buying 

Of course, a lot depends on what exactly your customers are purchasing. When it comes to groceries, for example, they usually know what they want and where to find them. Most of the time, they can fill their carts, pay, and go, without ever needing to interact with a store associate.  

But the same isn’t necessarily true for one-off or large purchases. They’re unfamiliar with what’s available, worried about making an expensive mistake, and much more likely to need assistance and advice. If they’re coming into the store instead of making an online purchase, they’re probably doing it for two reasons: they want to see and touch the items, and they want someone to help them make the right choice. 

Unmanned stores are not the answer 

In recent years, we’ve seen many retailers, including Amazon, experiment with completely unmanned stores. Shelves are stacked by robots, screens provide product information, and customers use Scan and Go or Just Walk Out technology to make their purchases. But while that can work for some types of simple purchase - for example if they’re buying a pint of milk or a frozen pizza after work - it’s not suitable for the majority of shopping trips.  

Most customers don’t want to walk into a giant vending machine. They like using technology to simplify their customer journey. But they also want to know that there are knowledgeable, helpful staff available if they have a problem or a question. Most importantly, they want to feel you’re taking care of them.  

The evidence is clear - from Amazon themselves. They’re shuttering their Amazon Go stores, but they’re re-deploying the friction-free checkout technology in Whole Foods and other stores.  

Empower your customers and your staff 

So, to return to the question I posed at the start of this piece: how should retailers respond to these two seemingly contradictory demands? 

The answer is to deploy technology and store staff in the right places. 

Make it easier for customers to self-serve by offering self-checkout options and informational screens so that they can make small or routine purchases and inquiries quickly and easily. Then retrain and redeploy cashiers into other customer service roles: have more staff on the shop floor where they’re available to answer questions or provide assistance when needed. 

This not only gives customers what they want, but also improves the productivity and workplace environment for your staff. They’re not tied up with routine tasks like manning checkouts, which reduces stress and boredom, which in turn increases job satisfaction and reduces staff turnover. They’re also adding more value by helping to increase satisfaction and revenue through up-selling and cross-selling directly to customers. 

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