Hey! Coffee Drinker! Brew Your Own. I'm Here to Make Sure You Pay!
Much of what is discussed about the decline of (physical) retail focuses on the change in consumer behavior wrought by on-line sales. Of course, that is entirely appropriate. Consumer behavior has changed: On-line sales show the power of software, automation and algorithms to facilitate its evolution. The efficiencies are also obvious: On-line requires few human interactions and those which are necessary tend to cluster in the shipping department, which is quickly becoming robotized.
So, retailers in the physical world attempt to follow suit, searching for efficiencies. Post-human efficiencies.
Early on, Macy’s installed scanners so shoppers could check the price on marked down goods, rather than employ sales associates to do the physical labor.
Then, came the dread check-out scanners, installed to reduce the need to pay people to do the actual chore. CVS, Walmart and grocery retailers went with the flow. Shopper frustration notwithstanding: The theory being shoppers would ultimately learn to check themselves out without human assistance.
Yesterday, in various airports, the logical consequence of such automation was made manifest – in the coffee shops. Not just self-service, but Keurig kiosks and self check-out. No one there to assist in any part of the product acquisition process.
There was one person on site, however. What was he there for? To make sure I didn’t shoplift my coffee. That seems to be the one essential retail task requiring human intervention.
Let’s pay attention. If that is the sole requirement of human staff at retail – “shrinkage prevention” – then, what are retailers telling us about human behavior? Every shopper, left to her own devices would steal what she wants? Do we imagine shoppers don’t feel that suspicion? That consumers don’t resent Urban Outfitters’ decision to refuse to let both mothers and daughters in the fitting room at the same time? That shopping on line isn’t preferable? Far more preferable? Except, of course, for a cup of coffee before an early flight to Rochester.
Let’s just say, I believe Starbucks is positioned for even and ever greater growth.