The future of shopping: Staffless. Cashless. Gapless.
This commentary first appeared at the Interactive Customer Experience Association (ICXA), an organization focused on connecting B2C brands to technology that elevates the customer experience. To learn how to join click here.
There's a Swedish startup testing a cashless, staffless popup shop on wheels in China.
There's a cruise line testing out its own tricked-out version of a theme park's wearable tech to cater to guests.
And online e-commerce giants are moving into brick-and-mortar and experimenting with cashless, checkoutless stores.
OK, here's where the old world of shopping ends and the sci-fi movie begins. What's come in the past is just prelude to the real disruption coming down the pipeline. Here comes customer experiences that are cashless, staffless and have no gaps in covering customers everywhere they go. It's not just the future of shopping; it's quite possibly the future of everything.
Stockholm-based startup Wheelys — the coffee shop/cafe on a bike — has moved from two wheels to four with its new Moby Mart, a c-store on wheels where people can buy everything from shoes to snacks without ever seeing another person. Seriously, it's like a bus but with store shelves and a glass front/side instead of seats. You scan a QR code to get in, they charge you based on barcodes you scan (they're ironing out the kinks on making sure people only take what they pay for, but it's not far off, sounds like), and off you go. Imagine being able to move your local Banana Republic to different locations during the day based on a heat map of foot traffic.
And Carnival Cruise Line's newly revamped Regal Princess has set sail with 7,000 onboard sensors and 4,000 guest portals — think touchscreen interfaces — and the line's new Ocean Medallion, a combo platter of wearable tech and mobile app designed to let ship's personnel cater to guests' every whim. Don't feel like leaving your deck chair to get another drink? That's OK; someone will bring it to you. Can't figure out what to do today? That's OK; using your own preferences, the app will direct you to other experiences you'll likely enjoy.
The man behind the medallion, Carnival's chief experience and innovation officer, came to the cruise line after shepherding to completion Disney World's MagicBand and MyMagic+ app/wearable combo, that eliminated cash and created personalized experiences at the Florida theme park as well.
Oh, and Amazon is doing cashless Amazon Go things in brick-and-mortar now too, for books and groceries. And God only knows what Bezos has in store for Whole Foods.
Put all these data points into something resembling a trend line and what do you see? Consumers whose wearables let retail or restaurant staff monitor, and cater to, their every whim, everywhere. And their purchase history and loyalty points. And their location. Stores could follow shoppers instead of the other way around.
If Carnival Cruise and Disney Resorts have wearable/app combos, how long is it before others do too? And then how much longer is it beyond that that everyone does? And then Apple and Google and everyone else will combine them all into one functionality on your smartwatch or smart patch you just apply to your skin.
So you could decide you want a Starbucks while you're shopping at the Macy's next door, and someone from Starbucks could bring it right to you because they know you're on the second floor in the shoe department while your husband is trying on shoes.
And that mobile Banana Republic? What if it could move to places based on heat maps of foot traffic of their loyalty members that they're tracking by their mobiles or wearables? Or maybe it stays at the mall, but the only people who actually work in the store are all on the back end and are never seen by customers, who come in, browse and buy without ever interacting with a person. (Remember that another data point is the increasing number of people who prefer self-service to human help.)
In the future, will only really high-end retailers and fine-dining restaurants have actual, real people working in the store? Will most stores be staffed by robots, holograms and algorithms?
One of the reasons cited for starting something like a Moby Mart is rising rents making it harder for shops to make ends meet. But if you factor in the way reduced costs of a staffless (or even staff-lite) mobile mart could lower the barrier to entry for both retail and restaurant startups, then established brands could be facing a coming crush of new competitors as well.
I'm still looking forward to the first quick-service restaurant to be built with an interactive OLED storefront window that lets you order your cheeseburger and fries by tapping on the store window, and pay with your phone before even going inside, where you play on interactive touchscreen tables while you wait for a Roomba-type robot to bring you your food. Oh, and it should be on wheels and feature some of the driverless car technology everyone and their mother is working on, so that after closing time it can just go park itself in a garage.
And I love people, but I also can't wait for the day that I walk into The Gap, and no one asks to help me except maybe the hologram by the front door — and I can walk out the door with my purchases without ever speaking to anyone unless I call my wife to ask her how her day's going.
Get ready; we're all already on the road there. And the off-ramp to the future is closer than you think.
Christopher is the managing director of the Interactive Customer Experience Association and former editor of DigitalSignageToday.com. A longtime freelance writer and reporter, he's bringing a fresh perspective and critical take on the industry.www