The Future of Self Service In Stores Is Dire

Ever since RSR’s webinar on the NRF Big Show, one topic keeps cropping up over and over: self service in stores. To talk about this topic in any meaningful way, you first need to keep in mind that the need for self service in stores differs significantly by retail vertical. No one expects (or truly, wants) an employee following them around while filling a grocery basket, but they very much expect employee assistance when shopping for high end clothing, to put it in extreme terms. Will self service go away for convenience shopping in stores? Probably not. Will it invade high-end experiences? Probably not. But in between is a whole lot of ground.

Both consumer and retailer perception of the role of self service in stores seems to be changing, and the two groups do not necessarily see the world the same way.

For consumers, self service in stores has historically been perceived as at least better than waiting around for an employee to show up, or worse, getting an uninformed, untrained employee who doesn’t know what they’re doing. But that perspective is changing. As consumers turn to their own technology – their own smartphones – to gain access to whatever self service information they need, they are increasingly asking themselves why they bothered to come to the store in the first place.

The problem is, I see a lot of retailers embracing the old perspective that consumers actually want more self service. That perspective is getting dated. If I can get the same experience (or better) from my laptop at home, or even from my phone in the parking lot of the store, why do I need to go to the store at all?

This is setting a new bar for retailers when it comes to the store experience, and I think it will manifest into two main areas in stores in 2016:

One, differentiated self service. If retailers are going to offer self service, and there will still be plenty of retailers with self service at the grocery end of the spectrum, it will need to be an experience that goes beyond what a consumer can get for themselves with their mobile phone. Interaction with larger screens, interaction with physical products in digital spaces, almost as if the consumer’s mobile phone is a remote control, will be the kinds of “differentiated” self service we’ll start to see. Kiosks won’t necessarily go away, but they’ll pick up on the interaction trend by enabling communication with mobile phones too.

Content will need to be differentiated as well. Right now, more grocery retailers have less product content online than you’d find on the product box on the shelf, but that will change over time. As online content reaches parity with store content, the store experience will need to compensate by providing information that you can’t get to easily by shopping strictly online. For example, “complete the meal” recipe options that list ingredients to make a recipe that are available in that store right now.

The more consumers are able to bring online into stores, the more a technology-enabled store experience will need to bring something different to the mix in order to stay relevant.

On the flip side, more stores will need to offer differentiated employee services. It’s fascinating to watch this play out for Walmart, not the kind of retailer you would expect to find on the front line of this trend.

But the reality is summed up in one simple question: what do stores have that online does not? Easy answer: employees. But that is only differentiating if the employees can add value to the customer experience. If they are high turnover, low motivation, no-training employees, it’s a pretty sure bet they will add little to the customer experience that a shopper can’t already do for herself – thanks to her mobile phone.

That’s not to say that in-store technology can’t serve a purpose. In fact, it can help employees more easily become high service, trained, and knowledgeable participants in the shopper experience. But that is a very different play than investing in technology for self service. Retailers with high-service experiences are headed in that direction, if they’re not already there. Thus the interest in assisted selling and clienteling. But I have a feeling this trend will reach pretty far down into general merchandise – especially if a company like Walmart is already feeling the pinch.

Self service, in the sense of forcing the consumer to do all the work themselves, will die out in stores. It has no future. It can’t have a future in stores, because a shopper armed with a laptop or mobile device, in the comfort of her own home, can create a better self service experience than any one delivered by a kiosk (or the consumer’s own mobile phone) in the store. Consumer perception is already changing. Retailers will need to keep up.