In the near future digitalization will change the way we are shopping drastically. IoT and mobile will be drivers of the future of retail automation and sales autonomy. We have to face the question: Are stores on the way towards huge vending automata? And if so, is this going to be shoppers heaven?
The Digital Salesman
In the near future digital channels will create a direct link into your basket. A shopping tour starts at home or on your way back from work. Customers can access the store even before they arrive. Digital salesmen will make suggestions. Personalized offers will inspire you and make you believe you are understood.
When you arrive at the store, a shopping basket will be waiting on you. It is already filled with your personal shopping list. When handing it over, a digital salesman welcomes you and some goodies might be addressed – local offers based on stock and weather conditions, always considering your mission and needs. It is your choice, what you like and what you might return.
As soon as you step into the store – if you like – your mobile phone starts to get in contact with you. The digital salesman – male or female is your choice – will join you on the tour and gives advice where to go to find products you are searching for or your preferring. When you agree, he will give you hints on special offer, e.g. the special price for your favorite red wine you are just passing by. And in case you are not sure, which vegetable to serve with the fish, the digital salesman will be ready to make suggestions and provide extra information to support your choice.
Finally, when leaving the store, the digital salesman will compliment on the great choice and wish you a nice day – reminding you that he is there for you, whenever you like.
Whenever you search for a sales associate in a store, have to cope with lousy replies, spend several minutes searching for a specific products, or fight with the refill team for access to the shelf – a digital salesman would feel like heaven.
RFIDs and digital price tags start to introduce a lot of new possibilities to price and shelf management. The fully automated check-out will unlock new approaches to price management. Individual prices for products can be managed from the shelf and can be adjusted to the customer. Even the content of the basket or the items on the shopping list can contribute to an optimized pricing strategy.
The price for yogurt will be between 20 Cent and 50 Cent, depending on the best-before date. It is your choice if you take away the cheap yogurt, which is to be consumed the next two days, or if you want to fill up the refrigerator and go for a yogurt next week only.
You are looking for a good bottle of wine? When you are approaching the shelf it will recognize the piece of lamb in your basket and will make a special offer for a bottle of dry red wine.
Limits will be set by ethical rules. Gamification can offer new approaches, which help to balance out disruption and avoid people feeling unprivileged. Just need to remember, that at the butcher no one would have complained if someone received an extra piece of meat because of being a good customer in the past.
Other benefits involve the supply chain. A central store system could recognize, when items are taken out of the shelf. Customers experiencing empty shelves and out of stock situations are a thing of the past. Alarms will notify store managers about orders, which need to be placed – or even those are automated and managed from a central place.
Refill staff will get concrete advice, where shelves need to be filled up. In future this tasks could lead to micro robots or drones taking over the refill tasks. A last step into the future of retail automation?
In the future one might ask, what is the benefit of walking through a store. Instead of entering a store you might enter a room with lots of retail bays.
You dock to a bay and receive your pre-filled basket. You still will be able to check out every item in the basket and return them, if you are not in favor of them. Additional items can be requested and will be delivered to your bay within seconds. When everything you need is in your basket, your “shopping tour” is done. Depending on your mission, you can get it done within seconds or you will have time to evaluate and decide – better than in a “real” store.
Advanced retailers may even design them like slot machines. They will make sure that there is variation in your basket, while your needs and preferences are considered – bonus games and extras included. Shopping will become like a game – you will hope for your favorite wine, knowing well that Sunday cannot be everyday. Pick it or make it your special moment by replacing that item from the basket by your favorite choice.
[taking a deep breath]
The future of retail automation might sound like fiction, but technologies are on the way. They will deliver solutions for the approaches mentioned above soon. Indeed, it brings lot of benefits and there will be a strong wish to have access to these services – either from shoppers or retailers perspective.
And still it remains fiction – because of the customers. There is the gut feeling that customers will not want to have this kind of shopping in the future only. Where is the satisfaction from a shopping tour? Shopping at a bay feels like drawing a chocolate bar from a vending machine.
Looking back in the history, shopping always has come along with a plenty of sensations. There have been ages where trading was carried into markets, where people came together to exchange latest news. Shopping has been part of the social life. Automated stores would take away impressions from customers. They would not be willing to give them away.
Taking time. Selecting the things, which provide the most value to one-self. Get a picture of how things can come together. Receiving the impression of making a good deal. It sometimes requires time to come to a decision.
The smell of fresh bread, the sensation of fresh vegetables, the support of a friendly salesman. It is the product and the ambiance which suddenly trigger purchase decisions, that are not predictable.
Customers perceive values while shopping, which cannot be assigned to ingredients and packaging. Sensations are personal experiences. Mood and attitude are key drivers for value. Retail automation – in many senses – will ignore these factors as it is tailored towards optimization.
Growing retail business cannot happen from optimization only. Fostering memories. Establishing triggers for broadening one’s horizon. Inspiration as driver for new experiences. The activation of values from shopping experience in addition to pure purchase interaction will enable a new approach to retail.
Retail automation and inspiration have to be in a good balance to be successful. On the long run you cannot have one without the other.
Retail Culture beyond Vending Automation
Most retail is still happening in your neighborhood. Still local stores and salesman fill in the role of a social community in many areas. You meet other people at the store – people you might know. Competent salesman know you as their customer. The contact is reaching beyond greetings.
As retail is still about serving people, shops have to comply with culture. Stores are places, where culture can be experienced like no other. They even have a huge potential to form culture.
Retail stores can be seen to be much more than vending automata. While economic pressure is accelerating the need for automation, autonomy might not be the right objective. Retail can deliver identity and has the potential to build people communities – presumably run by people.
Where does it end? Only the future will tell.