Retail technology is replacing human interaction

Over the years, shopping has become simpler – from sneakers to groceries, it’s all just a click away. The convenience of online shopping has led to more people placing their orders via a device instead of going in-store. Because of this, the retail environment needs to be adapted to remain relevant to shoppers – even in South Africa where e-commerce accounts for only 1% of total sales.

Technology is fast becoming the answer but is it the right one?

The majority of SA stores have embraced the tech boom; introducing automated tickets and snack systems at cinemas, charging stations at popular coffee spots, self-service ordering points at fast food outlets, and self-checkout points in the fitting rooms of clothing stores. Technology has a great way of answering to the demand for higher foot traffic in major shopping areas. It also has altered the way we do things. As with most things, however, there is a downside. Technology has played a part in our country’s unemployment crisis. In the second quarter of this year, the official unemployment rate in SA rose from 27.6% to 29%, according to Accenture, a cause for concern in a time where the advancement of AI technology seems to mean fewer people in the workplace.

Which way forward?

Going shopping has long been a social activity in South Africa. It’s an opportunity to have a quick coffee and a catch up with a friend while you’re out. It’s why malls still exist and why they’ve grown in scale over the years like Menlyn Mall and the rise of the new Fourways Mall in Johannesburg. While online is the go-to for fast shopping, physical stores remain where customers have meaningful interactions with brands and other humans. They have the ability to build more experiential, personalised, and memorable connections.

A great example of where one-on-one customer service still reigns supreme is at a petrol station. The petrol attendant fills your car and then asks if they can wash your windscreen and check your tyres, all at no extra cost. It’s the kind of human connection that no machine can replace.

There is a need for balance between machines and humans

While it’s true that technology has made things easier in many retail areas but the success of retail is still judged on people and not machines. When tech fails, consumers look to the people in-store for answers. Adding technology to the retail space is a necessary step to keep physical stores up-to-date, exciting, and relevant. But in order to effectively implement it staff must be upskilled and trained to use it.

Humans and machines need to work together. Technology aides in efficiency and capturing the retail brand’s online presence in the physical store. Clerks and assistants uphold the human qualities of the brand, bringing its personality to life. Being able to fully experience a brand is the reason why shoppers still go in-store, and human interaction is what brings retail to life and makes it meaningful. 

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