Retail Robots – What’s the Future for this Futuristic Trend?

Contributed by Phillip Adcock, founder and Managing Director of Shopping Behaviour Xplained Ltd

Even a decade ago, the thought that someday we might have robots living among us was one consigned to science fiction. Yet now, it’s becoming a reality. Softbank Robotics created the retail robot Pepper in 2015 and the company is working on its ambition of integrating her into the staff of brick and mortar stores. Last November, Pepper was introduced into two malls in California — and this is only the beginning.

Meanwhile, Amazon is cutting costs by steadily reducing its human workforce and replacing them with robots. A recent unveiling of a demo two story supermarket with only six human staff members has excited and scared society in equal measure.

We’re already facing a job crisis, as well as a disconnect from other human beings, so is reducing jobs and replacing humans with robots, where even less human interaction is required, really the answer? Philip K. Dick, in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, wrote: “Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order.”

Androids were just a far-off dream in 1968, but he’s far from outdated in his concerns. Machines are intelligent, but without empathy and human connection, will their appeal fade? Or are they really the future?

What Do Shoppers Really Expect From Customer Service?

In-store research and shopping behaviour analysis tells us that empathy, more than speed or efficiency, is the most important part of customer service. Customers who feel that the service is empathetic are nine times more likely to return, whereas those who feel like the service was speedy are only three times more likely to become regular customers.

In fact, the human connection and the empathetic connection makes such a difference to sales that glasses have now been developed to connect the salesperson and someone viewing from their electronic device. GoInStore, currently in place in a handful of stores across the UK, connects two ways via voice and one way via video. It’s a start, but it’s still far from the human connection you get when talking in real life and responding to facial expressions and body language.

The fact that this has even been created, however, shows that human connection is a hole in the market of eCommerce that still hasn’t been filled. It’s not a giant leap to say that a similar one would appear if robots filled the marketplace. With emotional responses being 3000 times quicker than rational reactions, customer service that can evoke a positive emotional response will always be more effective than robotic service.

We’re Facing a Crisis of Loneliness — and Robots Aren’t the Answer

Our aging population is growing at a pace we can’t keep up with. Worldwide, it’s forecast that by 2050, 1.5 billion people over the age of 65 will be alive. This is a problem that Japan — where 25 percent of the population are over 65 — are keen to solve with robot carers. For a country that used to have such a high emphasis on family values and children looking after their parents, replacing family with robots seems like a swift turnaround and dehumanisation. For all we complain when our parents want to have dinner with us, would we really want them to be replaced by a machine?

Pets, once the comfort of the elderly, have also been somewhat replaced by robots, as the world continues its infantilization of pensioners. You can keep your elderly relative company with a robotic seal, or a dog which when you hug, you can feel the gears.

Looking at this fascination with replacing ‘carers’ with robots, it must also be considered in the context of retail and the elderly — or simply retail and those of us who don’t have social contact in our day-to-day lives. We live alone, we eat alone and now we’re going to shop alone. Humans are social creatures that have evolved over centuries to have brains triggered by empathetic responses — something that simply can’t be replicated by a machine.

Can Robots Maintain Long-Term Customer Interest?

Companies seem determined to invest in and develop robotic technology — and yet, shopper research suggests the consumer is more scared than supportive. Although billions are being invested in driverless cars, three out of four consumers wouldn’t buy one, saying that it “scares the bejeezus” out of them.

The fear that machines will take over and betray us due to their lack of empathy is very real. Not only is it the theme of countless films, it’s a real consumer fear, as well as the fear that machines will take our jobs. In a time of backlash against globalisation, the biggest danger of all is the machines that will reduce the need for workers. Shopper research suggests that the desire to put androids in our place is company led — not consumer led.

With customers wanting to keep their jobs, as well as maintain human interaction, what will sustain stores that are staffed with robots? Will stores use their extra profit margins to make it cheaper for the consumer, or will they try and create the impression that shopping at robot-staffed stores is a status symbol?

The future isn’t coming: it’s here and it’s being pushed onto us by global giants such as Amazon. Will it revolutionise the retail experience? Or will we find ourselves trapped in a world where human connection and empathy is a thing of the past, and loneliness is rife as the disconnect of the machine spreads to us, too. Will consumers rebel and refuse to give up their connection to other humans, as they say they will now? That remains to be seen.

Phillip Adcock is the founder and Managing Director of Shopping Behaviour Xplained Ltd — a shopping research organisation that uses psychological insight to explain and predict how consumers will behave. SBXL operates in seventeen countries for hundreds of clients including Mars, Tesco and B&Q.

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