Balancing Innovation And Humanity

Mixed emotions over Amazon Go, the first convenience store with no checkouts

If you haven’t yet heard how it works, you download the Amazon Go app to your smartphone and scan your way in to the store through a turnstile. You bag the items you want, without having to empty your basket or even look at a cashier. You are tracked with surveillance cameras and sensors, which verify your purchases, charge the card linked to your Amazon account, and email a receipt to you. It’s kind of like ultra efficient shoplifting but with big brother watching you.

Good or bad idea? Ask the audience

The potential benefits include creating smoother customer experiences by making one of the world’s oldest industries more efficient, although I’m intrigued to see the effect on Britain’s favourite pastime, queuing. On the other hand, for shopping lovers like me, there are concerns it will take away a human element from what can be an enjoyable human experience. I hate the thought of going to the shop and not having a little chat with Si, the owner of my local convenience store. Who else is going to help me with product recommendations when I just can’t choose? More importantly, who will give me the latest local gossip? I know I’m not alone in enjoying the human interface shopping brings. This trade-off between more efficient experiences and less human interaction is certainly something innovators in this area will need to grapple with. There is a point where we may actually decide there is such a thing as too much automation.

We used the CitizenMe Exchange to explore the thoughts of people in the UK and USA. There are citizens in both countries who believe that increasingly automated shopping experiences like Amazon Go, are a positive development for customers. That said, the UK is definitely more optimistic than their friends across the pond. When considering the effect that shops such as this will have on the retail industry, 42% of Brits said they believe that the effect would be positive (as opposed to 23% who believe it will be negative). Conversely, 31% of Americans believe the effect will be positive, while 34% believe it will be negative.

Citizens are definitely conflicted

While we found out that a lot of people are generally optimistic about the likes of Amazon Go, the obvious fear of job losses was clear. In fact, nearly half of the respondents in both countries said that they believe the loss of jobs to automation creates a strong argument for the introduction of a universal basic income. But would they still shop there? Well, that answer depends on when you’re from. The first Amazon Go store might have opened in the USA, but American respondents weren’t overly enthusiastic about shopping there if a branch was to open in their local area. 36% said they would be likely to shop at Amazon Go, as opposed to 44% who said they would be unlikely to. On the other hand, 49% of Brits said that they would be likely to shop there, compared to just 17% who said they wouldn’t. Time will tell whether these views will soften as more Amazon Go shops open.

Will this be the end of retail workers?

This is an interesting new innovation in the busy world of retail, where increasing automation for smoother customer experiences comes at the expense of human interaction. The new concept store has received a mixed reaction from the press, who have labelled it as everything from the future of the high street, to the death of it. A large concern is the potential loss of jobs that automation is believed to bring. There are reasons to be more optimistic, though. The automation of large parts of an industry’s workforce is not new. From weaving, to the introduction of ATMs, to the spread of computers, there are numerous times throughout history where increasing automation has redefined jobs, not destroyed them. Automation improves efficiency, and frees up time for workers to complete other tasks, even creating jobs that didn’t previously exist. Whilst retraining and developing new skills may be needed, we’re confident more automation in the retail sector will have a net-positive effect for society as a whole.

So, is Amazon Go disruptive?

The thought of a more efficient experience through Amazon Go for grabbing ‘essentials shops’ of bread, butter and eggs is something I could definitely get on board with. But definitely not for shoe shopping and such like, which requires much more careful consideration. Increased automation will free up time for us to do other things that we enjoy, which can only be good. But, as with all advances like these (that on the face of it remove human interaction), we must ensure that a balance is struck. We should never lose sight of the customer. We will always enjoy human interaction, and as social creatures we need it to survive. The key thing for tech companies in order to get positive reactions for concepts such as Amazon Go, is to find the right balance of innovation and humanity. As ever, humans need to be at the centre of innovation.