Has the practice of continuously optimising a shopper’s online user experience (UX) changed the way that people shop in the material world? In other words, has the experience of purchasing goods online changed the way that we physically purchase things? If yes, what does that mean for the future of how we shop, and for the future of retail?
A few weeks ago, I was commuting to a nearby city from Amsterdam Central Station on a Tuesday evening. I was tired, my train had been delayed, and I felt thirsty. Acting on impulse, I walked into the nearest store, picked up a bottle of lightly citrus flavored sparkling water, and made my way to the cash desk. The store was a famous, nation-wide franchise and household name in the Netherlands.
What happened next was not unusual. I stood in a line of people, all waiting to pay, and did what us modern humans do best: took my phone out of my pocket and began pointlessly opening and closing apps, scrolling through news feeds, and laugh-reacting to photos of dogs in the hopes of making time go by faster. The next thing that happened surprised me: I put my phone back in my pocket, exited the queue, and returned the water bottle to where I had found it. Then, I walked out of the store.
Without looking back, I departed the store knowing somehow that I would never return there, walked a few meters to the left, and entered a second mini-mart: a competitor of the first store. There, I grabbed the same bottle of water, walked to one of the many self-checkout screens, scanned the barcode on the bottle and literally tapped my bank card onto a small payment reading device. All of this within less than 40 seconds.
Quite satisfied with my choice, I walked out of the store and took several large gulps of water before walking past the first store. There, I saw the person who was originally in front of me in the initial queue only then finishing her payment.
Why did I do this?
Because the autopilot part of my brain knew that instead of a slow-moving, human-operated queue full of people waiting to pay, the second mini-mart had touchscreen, self-operating checkout counters. Hence, rather than having one human to serve a queue of eight people, as in the first store, the second store had eight checkout screens to serve the same amount of people. In other words, no queue.
Now, this might seem like a trivial sequence of events. If we look a little deeper, however, I believe that it opens up several fundamental questions regarding our technological future.
Firstly, it enables us to bring the app- and web-based notion of user-experience (UX) design into the everyday realm of human life. In the same way that a well-designed landing page offers website visitors smooth scrolling, easy shopping and fast checking out, so did the second mini-mart offer me a seamless, fast and convenient shopping experience.
As new-age shoppers, we’ve become so spoilt in the world of online shopping that if a website’s user experience and interface is poorly designed, slow or unintuitive, we simply leave it, open up a new browser tab and try again with that website’s competitor.
It would seem, at least in my own case, that this otherwise-digital phenomenon has entered the material world of in-person, retail shopping. Instead of closing the original browser tab, I simply exited the first mini-mart, and instead of opening a new one, I simply walked next door into the competitor’s store.
What bridges these two experiences- online versus retail shopping- is the way in which the self-navigation processes have become almost entirely subconscious.
In case of my story, I didn’t consciously take note of my shopping actions and movements until I was sitting comfortably in the train on my way home, the empty water bottle in my hand being knocked rhythmically against my kneecap. What this subconscious element of shopping illuminates, is that our shopping experiences have become driven by intuition, instant gratification and convenience.
Put differently, we instinctively choose the shopping experience that offers us the smoothest flow of actions with the least possible amount of friction, nuisance and hassle.
Automation and the future of retail
Now, if we move into the conversation around automation- humans being replaced by machines- then my point above means retail shopping is the first sector to experience the imminent role of automation in our lives.
Although this is already a seemingly known point, it appears that many retailers still haven’t caught on. As the increase of intuition-driven shopping ensues, more and more (first world) customers will subconsciously do what I did on a warm Tuesday evening in Amsterdam: turn their backs on retailers that provide even the slightest form of UX friction. Whether it be in the form of long queues, lack of air-conditioning, rude staff or any other inconveniences, if people have the opportunity to choose between two stores selling the same products, they will intuitively choose the one with a more pleasant ‘user experience’ (in the most literal sense of the phrase).
If this approach seems in any way harsh, opening up the moral question of “what about human-to-human interaction” as a measure of value, then I’d like to argue that the element of human-to-human interaction is irrelevant, even tangential to the dominant determining factors in our experience flows of modern shopping.
As great as what a friendly cashier’s smile can be, our increasing shift towards digital and online-shopping experiences means that our brains are increasingly wired to uphold two new measures of value when shopping: intuition and convenience.
If the first mini-mart in my story had eight checkout counters with eight smiling cashiers to serve eight people, then I would have happily stayed there to complete my purchase. This, however, would be far from economical and would most likely result in the store having to close down. With digital, self-checkout counters on the other hand, I am able to experience a UX flow of shopping that is consistent, convenient and highly intuitive.
To be clear, it’s not the human-to-human interaction with cashiers that acts as a friction point in the shoppers’ experience (although I’m sure some introverts will be happy to circumvent that part). For example, most people prefer talking to humans over robots and automated voices when dealing with customer service offices and helpdesks. Rather, it’s the experience of pointlessly standing in a queue whilst the technology exists to let us not stand in queues.
What does this mean for the retail stores?
Well, by offering customers better shopping experiences and simultaneously cutting costs through automation processes, retail stores are able to lift up their bottom line, providing them with better revenue margins on the one hand, and more loyal customers on the other (like myself). In other words, automation processes in stores aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re just going to be improved upon, optimized, and more widely rolled out.
Unfortunately, a trend that emerges in light of all of this is that shoppers are less patient when it comes to standing in queues, especially when they know that other options exist. If my story is anything to go by, retail stores like the first one in my tale are naively situated at the top of the extinction list, seemingly indifferent to to the waves of digital disruption that so unforgivingly crash at their doorsteps.
In the grand scheme of things, what does this all mean?
I would say that without us being particularly aware of it, technology has begun to infiltrate every aspect of our life. This is especially so in light of my point about these processes being subconscious: modelled off of the everyday experiences of online and app-based shopping.
More than that, I would argue that beyond just infiltrating our lives, technology has begun to shape and construct various aspects of our lives, no longer making it a peripheral-influential factor, but rather a central-determinant factor in our everyday patterns of existence. Apart from the many lifestyle changes, habits and behaviours that technology has brought into our lives, for better or worse, it seems that aspects of modern technology such as user experience design have begun to affect our everyday interactions with the world.
Ultimately, it seems that a greater shift is taking place when it comes to the way that humans interact with the world. For now, it suffices to say that the advent of good user experience in the online world has resulted in people like me being ‘spoilt’ when it comes to intuitive and convenient shopping experiences. This phenomenon, namely that of being accustomed to good UX design online, now seems to be manifesting in the ‘real’ world of retail shopping. As such, more and more of us will choose better user experiences, resulting in stores like the first mini-mart in my tale becoming obsolete. This is, however, unless they are able to act fast and improve on the shopping experiences that their customers go through.
PS: It’s important to note that both the stores in my tale are national retail franchises and household brands in Europe. I’m not advocating for every ‘mini-mart’ store to adopt the processes of automation, as I acknowledge that many people’s livelihoods could then be jeopardised. Besides, smaller family-owned kiosk stores generally have shorter queues and better user experiences, probably because they acknowledge that their customers are often in a hurry.
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