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With groundbreaking AI and computer-vision technology transforming the traditional grocery store, can consumers fully give up on human interaction in their shopping experience?
Amazon recently announced the opening of the largest cashierless grocery store yet, standing at six times the size of its flagship Amazon Go store that launched in Seattle last year. Following a successful trial of the ecommerce giant’s Just Walk Out technology within the smaller market, the opening of the new branch marks the first “cashierless” full-size store. Amazon’s groundbreaking technology creates an experience that is described as “almost like magic,” allowing shoppers to load items into their cart and skip the checkout line on exit.
That being said, the revolutionary market isn’t truly cashierless. When customers arrive at the store, they have the option of choosing between the Just Walk Out experience or a traditional shopping experience with a staffed checkout lane. This hybrid store highlights a potential problem for the future of completely automated markets and begs the question whether we are all truly ready for an isolated shopping experience with no human assistance.
The age gap
Today’s society is made up of two clashing groups of people — those who grew up with technology around them and are adept at picking up new gadgets and those who are technophobic and prefer to maintain the status quo. In fact, technological anxiety is a real hurdle for the older generation, who are less prone to adopting digital solutions despite their potential to improve their daily life. This is especially tricky for innovators, who must find solutions that appease both age groups.
People are most likely to display technological anxiety when facing digitized versions of mundane daily tasks, such as grocery shopping. To get the older generation on board with a new shopping experience, the underlying technology must be as natural and frictionless as possible. In fact, studies have shown that widespread adoption of a new technology depends primarily on whether its perceived added value outweighs the perceived difficulty of its use. Therefore, innovators looking to make smart shops commonplace must focus on improving the shopping experience while also maximizing their products’ usability.
Digitized store technology
So what kind of technology is streamlining the cashierless market? Amazon Go is a true pioneer in the digitized grocery store space. While previous iterations of the smart store used radio-frequency identification (RFID) or weight sensors on shelves, Amazon Go uses groundbreaking artificial intelligence and computer-vision technology coupled with data pulled from multiple sensors in the store. Cameras track items as they are removed from and replaced on the shelves, ensuring customers are only charged for items they pick up. This makes the experience truly seamless and virtually indistinguishable from traditional grocery shopping, minus the line at the cash registers.
The only part that may scare off technophobes is the fact that on entry, shoppers are required to scan the QR code in their Amazon app, use Amazon One to scan their palm or insert a credit or debit card linked to their Amazon account. That being said, shoppers have attested that all of these procedures are extremely simple and should not hinder them from using the Just Walk Out experience in the future.
The smart cart has also become a staple of the cashierless markets. A smart cart is easy to introduce in established outlets as it usually does not require installing a plethora of supporting sensors and systems. Giant supermarket chain Kroger, for instance, is rolling out a new line of “KroGo” smart shopping carts, developed by startup Caper. The cart allows shoppers to scan items they place into it and pay on its credit card processor.
Other smart carts on the market are leveraging AI-based technology instead. WalkOut retrofits shopping carts with cameras and screens, utilizing computer vision to identify the items placed into and taken out of carts. Such technology streamlines the shopping experience by transforming carts into mobile cashierless checkout stations, but also serves as a personalized recommendation platform. That being said, smart carts eliminate the social aspect of shopping that technophobes often seek.
Is hybrid better?
Despite the huge convenience of automated markets, customers still crave human interaction in their shopping experience. In fact, 82% of U.S. consumers want more interaction with store staff. Notably, despite generational differences, Gen Z and Baby Boomers all have the same expectation of convenience in their shopping experience. Whether using technology or not, customers want the service to be the same, seeking a seamless transition from tablet to smartphone to desktop to human.
Nevertheless, consumers are more and more accepting of technology. The pandemic forced all-around automation upon us, emphasizing the lack of human contact as an unfortunate necessity. With shoppers embracing these new habits, perhaps it will prompt more people to accept more digitized experiences in the future.
Therefore, Amazon’s hybrid market model may be the most efficient method moving forward. As long as consumers demand human employees, a truly cashierless market is unattainable and unproductive. Markets that are digitizing — whether through in-store sensors or smart carts — must employ human service that supports technology in a seamless and unobtrusive way in order to create the best customer experience.