Bring on the robots
6 Oct 2022
This week: How AI and automation are shaping our in-store experiences – and bringing visions of the future into the present.
Throughout the day, technology alters our lived reality. When you pop in your AirPods or track your steps on a fitness app, you become something of a cyborg. Part human, part machine, the concept of a cyborg was first imagined by scientists in the 1960s, who envisioned a future where an artificial technology could enhance real-life experiences and human abilities.
• In 2022, that vision has come to fruition in more ways than one. Artificial intelligence, automation, and augmented reality are just some of the new frontiers we’re seeing in retail, restaurants, and art galleries. Exhibit 1: American grocery company Instacart announced in September that it will debut Connected Stores, a bundle of new tech integrations — including AI-powered shopping carts tricked out with scales, sensors, and touchscreens — designed to help grocers skip checkout lines, place bakery and butcher orders ahead of time, and make it easier to find items both online and in-store. David McIntosh, Instacart’s VP of Platform Growth and Technology, wrote in a company announcement, “What if we could combine the convenience, speed and personalization of online grocery shopping with the inspiration and discovery that happens in a physical store?”
• But the verdict is out on whether this cyborg reality is helping or hurting our existing experiences. If you’ve placed a meal order on one of those greasy iPads at an airport terminal, you know that not all tech upgrades are actually desirable. And what does the rise of automation and self check-out mean for us humanoids who rely on non-robot jobs to make a living? The rise of the self-checkout has been an ongoing frustration for customers and been costly for the businesses that implement them. In a survey of 1,000 shoppers, 67% said they’ve experienced a self-service checkout kiosk failure, according to a 2021 report from experience management platform Raydiant.
• Put simply, there are limits to the promised robot revolution. “The technology challenge of actually implementing [digital features] can overshadow the importance of the user experience,” Jackie Walker, experience strategy lead at Publicis Sapient told ModernRetail. Some tech integrations have genuinely helped create more inclusive user experiences. Mumbli, a hearing wellness app was designed to help improve the in-person experiences of the ederly and hard-of-hearing in public venues. But others have alienated key customer demos. Take for example, the mere 6% of 55 to 65-year olds keen on cashierless checkouts according to Raydiant’s survey.
Will technology save us from all our problems? Likely not. But that’s not to say humans and robots can’t coexist.
Despite its limits, AI and automation have helped some businesses navigate the sea change of shopping habits brought on by the pandemic. And whether you’re a tech optimist or pessimist, there’s no denying that customers learned to expect the same personalization, ease, and flexibility of online shopping from IRL businesses. That’s forced analog shops to think critically about modernizing their online delivery, and pickup offerings.
• Take it from Geoff Watts and Julia Fowler, the co-founders of EDITED, a retail intelligence platform that helps business owners respond to changes and rising trends. “We believe it’s essential today to use data in every retail strategy,” the pair said in an interview with Maddyness. One resounding insight they’ve found throughout sectors from homeware to fashion? What’s stocked in stores should also be online. “The industry has gone omnichannel,” they explain. “Customers won’t tolerate browsing in one place and not being able to buy in the other.”
• In Forbes, Patrick Niersbach, SVP of Marketing at Syndigo, shares a similar outlook: “To keep shoppers in-store, retailers should ensure the experience matches – or exceeds – the ease of ‘point, click, buy’.” In short, that means either leaning into physical advantages like live demos, community events, elevated shopping experiences through sounds, smells, and stellar customer service, or making online and in-person experiences seamlessly blended so people feel consistency no matter which channel they choose.
• In 2020, shoppers went omni: the habit of buying online and picking up in-store grew by 28% compared to the previous year, according to McKinsey. And this pandemic-era behavior appears to be sticking. “The savviest retailers have spent years creating omnichannel strategies that blend physical and online channels to engage consumers in the channel of their choosing,” the report declares. Say it with us now: either double down on in-person perks, or get omni with it.
Our 2 cents? For small businesses especially, creativity is the best technology. You don’t need to launch your stores into the metaverse or start a line of NFTs to connect with the people you serve.
There’s no replicable code for genuine care and ingenuity. Even the robots know that to be true.
Words by Nicola Pardy, a freelance writer and producer living in New York.