Of course, there are also numerous initiatives in Asia to fully automate the physical store and make it frictionless. For example, there is Taobao's Tao Café ,where the baristas are still just flesh and blood, but the checkout is fully automated, using an app and a combination of object and facial recognition. Then there are Bingo Box's unmanned convenience stores, where payments still go through the app, but sensors register whether customers have properly paid for their purchases. And there are the almost completely autonomous mobile stores of Wheely's Moby Mart, where customers scan their own purchases with their smartphone. From all of these examples, it is clear that there is a lot of pioneering work with new shopping journeys in the Far East, where people are being assigned a role as a retail interface in the margin.
In South Korea, 7-Eleven is going a step further and eliminating the smartphone in the entire shopping process. Instead, shoppers scan their hand ('Handpay') on entry and when leaving the store. The payment follows fully automatically via direct debit. Here, however, sensors do not automatically register which items customers take with them, but the products have to be scanned briefly in a 360-degree product scanner.
The ultimate variant (which is also actually operational) seems to be the X-stores of JD.com. In these compact stores, customers can quickly do their convenience shopping (fruit, snacks and drinks) without having to perform one extra action. The shop recognises visitors (after an initial online registration) through facial recognition, automatically registers which items they have in their bag, basket or hand, and automatically debits the amount due as they leave the store.
There is one consolation: the store is (logically) not 100% staffless, but still depends on people for maintaining stocks. All the same, this dominant retail trend is crystal clear: in the years to come, retailers will look for ways to automate their stores more and more and make them as 'staffless' as possible (especially in operational areas), in order to give their shoppers the optimum 'frictionless' shopping experience. So is there still hope for the store employee?
And what about human contact?
Well, one thing is clear: gradually, all the technology has become available for completely automating and robotising shops. Yet, as human beings, we still seem to attach importance to human interaction in retail environments. So let's not put customer contact entirely in the hands of AI. Why not? An article in the Harvard Business Review by Ryan W. Buell (UPS Foundation Associate Professor of Service Management at the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School) makes a number of important points:
“(...) humans are inherently social creatures who get emotional value from seeing and interacting with one another. Research shows that taking away the opportunity for this kind of connection can undermine service performance.”
In other words, we may well use smart technology to simplify and accelerate processes, but in the meantime the customer's feeling of service is being negatively influenced.
He states that wanting and granting service have an important emotional component that technology will never be able to offer. It is no accident that the Amazon Go store does not have checkout staff, but still has a team of employees who can greet, guide and advise customers.
The main recommendation in his argument is "Automate transactional interactions, while facilitating human connections.". Duly noted.