Think of this: You enter a store and it is only you and the merchandise to choose from. There is no personnel in the store to talk to or to be served by. All operations are automated (robotic) by smart systems that watch, sense and “know” everything you do in the store. Thus you may not even need to go to a cashier stand because the system knows what products are picked-up and put in your shopping basket or cart in real-time (if there is a cashier stand it is self-service anyway). The store additionally communicates with you via a mobile app.
It sounds futuristic but automated unmanned stores are already up and running in early experimental or more advanced stages of testing and operation in different places in the world. The better known outlets are probably the Amazon Go grocery stores (by Amazon.com); however, there are more retailing initiatives of this type in North America (e.g., US), Europe (e.g., Scandinavia), and East Asia (e.g., China, South Korea, Japan) [for some more background see this review with examples in insider-trends.com].
The concept is further illustrated and discussed below, using as an exemplar the CYB-ORG venture (a ‘smart store’ model developed by Israel-based company CYB-ORG Technologies).
Key features characteristic of CYB-ORG’s store model include:
- Sellers-free store — no sellers needed;
- Identification of customers by finger prints and face recognition;
- Customers can pick-up product items from smart closed-door ‘containers’ (with look-through glass doors) upon confirmed identification;
- Fully automated data-driven marketing system that tracks shopper behaviour, mediates to inventory management, and delivers promotional messages to customers;
- Automated transparent payment system;
- Automated direct-link system between the store and suppliers.
Finally, as may already be implied from above, extra emphasis is put on the store’s highly-secured automated apparatus — no security guards are needed outside or inside the store.
For CYB-ORG and other initiatives: We should ask how much is a ‘sellers-free’ store truly an advantage? Human society is built on interactions between people (i.e., Human-Human Interaction or HHI) before Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Frequently, shoppers need the help of a staff member in the store, for instance with the location of a product. Surely one can create a technological solution for almost any kind of query or request for help, but it will not feel the same or even be as smooth as when a person shows you the way or gives an advice. If sellers are not courteous or knowledgeable enough, the answer should have been greater training and investment in the human sellers that will enable and encourage them to perform better.
Retailers can take measures with technological tools (e.g., reliant on AI capabilities) to reduce the required level of dependency of shoppers on sellers in a store without ridding of sellers completely. A retailer can reduce the staff in a smart automated store but should keep at least one staff member to show presence — not for security from shop-lifting but for customer confidence and a human touch — and to be ready to assist shoppers in need (at least during daytime hours). Wherever smart automation enters, the change demanded is of roles of human workers — for example, from a seller to shopping facilitator and adviser.
In the proposed store of CYB-ORG all merchandise appears to be kept in closed-door containers; shoppers-customers can watch products from the outside and access them physically upon identification. It makes sense to keep certain food products in closed refrigerated containers (but never locked) — most if not all current initiatives are said to involve convenience, food or grocery stores. It is sensible also to keep delicate, fragile and more expensive items (e.g., jewellery) in closed counters or cupboards, but it is not always essential (e.g., a note-signage may ask shoppers not to touch such items on open shelves). But keeping merchandise in closed containers to be unlocked upon the customer’s identification (e.g., by finger print) just for the sake of security could be excessive. What will happen when trying to extend the store model to other categories such as fashion or homeware? Is it really necessary once the shopper has been identified and approved to enter the store? Surveillance methods should be installed in-store that are much less conspicuous to shoppers, causing no interference in their shopping. The approach of CYB-ORG seems to serve the retailer more than the customer; instead customers may perceive such measures as daunting and untrusting, potentially causing rejection or avoidance behaviour.
Until the 1930s a greater part of the merchandise in a store was kept in locked counters with glass on top or in cupboards (e.g., behind the counters) that only sellers could access. In following decades of the 20th century modern retailing took a major turn to displaying merchandise in stores openly (e.g., on tables, counters, or shelves of open fixtures), so that shoppers can watch them closely without barriers, touch, pick-up and try more freely (but with caution and care where products deem so). Thus the level of shopper dependency on sellers has decreased and the level of flexibility during shopping has increased. Returning merchandise into closed cupboards or containers is not progress but more like regression from a consumer perspective.
One may then argue that in such an in-store environment shoppers really do not need sellers. But that is not accurate. An important tenet of retailing in stores that we appreciate today is that consumers-shoppers can choose whether they want to choose products on their own or seek the assistance and guidance of store sellers. Furthermore, very often shoppers start their journey in-store by browsing merchandise on their own, exploring the possibilities, and then turn for advice or assistance from a staff member of the store. As suggested above, the roles of members of store staff may change but the staff are not yet redundant.
Unmanned automated stores may become an economic necessity because physical stores as we know them turn unviable. Adopting this new store concept could be an integral part of the digital transformation that consumers cannot avoid. But will consumers enjoy shopping this way? It is fair to raise doubts about this. The new type of smart automated store may suit some product categories and appeal to some of the consumers, but many could feel left out, at least in the foreseeable future. The concept of an unmanned store is even more questionable, and perhaps should never be fully applied, as it may end up in elimination of human presence of any kind in the store.