Nowadays, there are big stores with self-check-outs that supposedly improve the customer service experience. But, what about the human component? As customers, when we buy certain products, we may need help or assistance. Surely, technology, no matter how advanced, cannot replace human contact. Or can it?
Author: Jorge Velosa | Reading Time: 4 minutes
December 2016 was the month that Amazon got into the offline grocery industry, a continuation of an online-to-offline movement. The company decided to open, in the center of Seattle, a 200 meters convenience store called Amazon Go. It is about “walking in and buying goods”, putting them in a shopping cart, by using your phone, without having to face long queues, and without having to check-out — a new way of going to the supermarket without having people to assist you at the store. It is auto service at its finest.
This online-to-offline movement is not just limited to the food market, and is reaching plenty of others. Bonobos, an American online clothing retail store, opened ten stores throughout the country where clients can try, but not carry, the items they buy. These are later shipped home. Andy Dunn, the CEO, states that the future of big online companies is offline and that human interaction is fundamental when selling.
Customer Service and combining Digital and Physical
Today, we have big stores with self-check-outs that supposedly improve the customer service experience. But do they? As airline customers, we got used to checking-in online. We can have our bags delivered and go about our way, thus avoiding a useless negotiation about our seats and stressing about late boarding. Airline companies trained us to be costumers who produce part of the job ourselves.
Let us compare this experience to the checkout experience in big supermarket chains. The retailer has handed over to the consumer a set of chores that were once carried out by the retail cashier without an additional significant benefit.
Other innovations regarding customer service, which combine both Digital and Physical, have been more client-oriented and that is why they are relevant to our discussion. Even Amazon created, on the online platform, the Amazon Dash button — a way to instantaneously order products via Wi-Fi with a physical button that, when pushed, produces an online order. This consumption experience is agile, has no friction, and combines the physical delivery with a simpler way of restoring the online stock.
North Face, a company that sells activewear and outdoor gear, uses an Artificial Intelligence program in association with IBM’s Watson computer, which allows the customer to relish on an online dialogue about the products that he could only have if he was at a physical store. In this case, the offline logic influences the online experience (you can try it!), but I doubt that it can replace the interaction with a human collaborator.
Amazon Go, Customer Service, and competitive advantage
Is Amazon Go a unique solution? There is a supermarket (Näraffar or literally “buy nearby”), created in 2016, in the small Swedish village of Viken, that runs without staff and has similar benefits. It is open 24 hours a day/7 days a week and customers shop there by downloading an app that allows them to access the store and purchase items, which are monthly charged to the buyer. In fact, it is a solution that does not differ much from vending machines and presents a much bigger selection and a much more innovative technology.
After all, in terms of customer service, technology does not produce personal interaction and I believe this is a powerful component of the store experience, and also a limitation of this kind of physical retail stores. Another limitation is the risk of theft, though there is a secure payment service based on ID Bank, a payment solution that allows the transaction to be liquidated and the buyer to be identified.
But, what about the human component? When we buy food, we may need help or an opinion. Many consumers still prefer to buy what they eat or cook in physical stores, partially due to the five-sense experience people get at the stores and due to the employee’s assistance. Bonobos combines the online store experience with the physical’s, as we previously stated.
It seems like this is the most adequate route and I patiently, and curiously, await Amazon Go’s progression. Surely technology, no matter how advanced, cannot replace human contact, which is more capable of achieving a higher customer service that holds and creates satisfied customers.