The Robots Are Coming
You would have thought that I was at some futurist convention, but no, over dinner with colleagues, someone shared the news: robots are coming to the retail world and they will be taking it over. From warehouses to the cashiers to sales and marketing, no position would be manned or hu-manned – if you would – rather they would be taken over by mechanical bots, AI algorithms, machines and motherboards. The proof was in the investment, they claimed. Anyone who is anyone was digging deep into their pockets to finance the takeover. Retailer conventions glorified these entities and demoed sneak peaks into how the industry would be forever changed.
Now, I have worked for years in the software industry, so I am not disputing any of these claims. Never say never. However, let’s imagine that we are in fact on the threshold of a retail robot revolution. If this is the case, I would like to ask a very fundamental question: can robots really replace us?
In my opinion – and I am not alone – buying is an emotional experience. Can algorithms really understand our needs? Can they ‘get’ that feeling that we have when we find exactly what we are looking for and it looks great? Can an algorithm really get to know us – the consumer – and our children, as we grow and evolve as a family. Can they greet us as we enter the store and ask us with authenticity how we are doing, and subsequently lead us to those items that will fulfil our needs as well as bring emotional satisfaction?
True, there are statistics that claim that consumers do not want to be bothered with small talk from sales associates, but the fact is that those sellers who create a personal rapport with their customers, will continue to be on the receiving end of loyal and returning consumers. This is not just true of the local mom-and-pop stores, or a high-end boutiques. Consider the Apple stores where the customers are invited to use the products and the sellers are there to facilitate this interaction and to answer any questions; thereby ensuring the delivery of a great customer experience. They have an inherent understanding that human interaction is likely to encourage sales and not the other way around.
I am sure that I am not the only person troubled by the image of the store becoming a nanostore – or a massive vending-machine-like experience – wherein AI and BI are ruthlessly coupled in a way that lends to hyper-personalization, ie, to use machine learning to analyze who you essentially are from a retail-profiling perspective. This futuristic vision of a store experience in which I am greeted at the door and led to the products that my robotic servers are configured to presume that I want, perhaps even before I have thought it through myself, leaves me cold. And isn’t the real solution already here? Isn’t that someone who knows me – ME? And if I need some support during my customer journey, isn’t that someone who can offer that support not that same seller who knows that I need a padded sole in my shoes, and remembers that my daughter refuses to have pockets on her clothing, and my wife won’t wear leather? Isn’t that someone a seasoned professional who can tell just by looking at me my collar size and waist size… spare me the comments about the fluctuation of the latter…? Should we really be using AI to expand human capabilities in robots instead of just teaching humans to grow their humanity? Shouldn’t we be focusing AI on the optimal expansion of retail instead? If we do this, we could work towards solutions for smart, specific and proportional sales to people for their effective use, thereby avoiding returns, over-expenditure, over-consumption and the need for resales.
There is a tendency to assume that purchase decisions are made predominantly based on rational factors. However, studies have shown that when customers evaluate potential products or brands, it is the right side of the brain that is significantly stimulated. In other words, when we are about to make a purchase our limbic systems: feelings, memories, images and value judgment are lit up, whereas our left side of the brain: data processing and analysis centers, remain largely unmoved. Some day, I would imagine that an AI algorithm will be able to evoke a right side of the brain emotional quotient, maybe event take into account highly individual and specific sensory and emotional decision-making factors. But we are not there yet. Strategically, marketers can capitalize on emotional behaviour by promoting a product to appeal to a feeling, as opposed to making an appeal based on data, statistics and cold hard facts. But, a more effective approach would be to appeal directly to the human and not to the emotion. Personifying the product will only take you so far.
The buyer is first and foremost a human. And who better to appeal to a person, then another person? The question is not whether a robot will ever be able to replicate human connections and inherently understand the underlying emotional impact of the shopping experience, rather whether it should. The more that the industry focuses on this technology, the more we invest – dare I say, obsess – over the potential of the coming of the robots, the less we focus on the fundamental need to build significant seller/shopper relationships and to provide the human touch that the customer craves from the most logical source. Human empathy and compassion that are fundamental to a sales process are downplayed in favor of AI algorithms predicting consumer purchase patterns on top of our social media activity.
It’s fair to suggest that even if the robots are coming, in terms of the immediate future, they are not here yet. For now, robots can’t imitate a quality conversation with authentic interjections about family, a recent vacation, and personal interests over a steaming cup of coffee, let alone make small talk that we can all do without. For now, automation won’t act as a replacement for the seller, even if it is taking its place as a data-driven decision maker.
And when the time comes that the seller can be replaced with the store-bot, because such a thing finally exists, it is unlikely that this machine entity can replicate savoir faire. So instead of inventing robots to replace the seller, why not use them to make the seller better at the operative aspects of his or her job, allowing them to maintain the domain over their organic strength: the human factor.
For sellers to ensure that they’re not replaced by automation what they need to do is to build a portfolio of skills and talents that go beyond the capabilities of technology — inherently human skills, like relationship-building and understanding psychological barriers that slow down the sales process. After all, the measure of success of a good seller, is not a single sale, but a customer returning on an ongoing basis in order to make additional purchases. This is more likely to happen because of human relations. When a seller and a customer forge a relationship to the extent that a human bond is formed, this is a bond that will not be broken easily – not even by price. When the guy who sells me my sports gear knows to ask about my kids, and knows which brands I favor, I personally am prepared to pay just a bit more – because I like him and the service that he provides.
If — at the end of the day — the goal of AI is to make the sale, whether it be in a brick-and-mortar store or by an online customer clicking on the Check Out button, then that should be the focus of this robotic revolution, not at the expense of an authentic customer experience, and certainly not in order to replace the human seller. Let’s allow AI to analyze in real-time whether my intention is to buy or not, my purchase history or other digital/online behaviour. But, let’s leave the the right side brain functioning in the purchase decision making —emotions, feelings and those things that make us inherently human — between us and the seller. And if that is not enough — just remember — you can change every entity from A-to-Z with robotic counterparts, but the buyer will always remain human. You can open the door to robots, but you can’t make the buyer open his heart to them.