Humans don’t want robots to help them shop

Save the fancy technologies, retailers. Consumers are looking to buy stuff as quickly and easily as possible


Nordstrom Inc. has a chatbot, an automated substitute for a human store assistant, meant to provide shoppers (both online and in-store) with gift ideas during the holidays. Photo: iStockphoto
Nordstrom Inc. has a chatbot, an automated substitute for a human store assistant, meant to provide shoppers (both online and in-store) with gift ideas during the holidays. Photo: iStockphoto

New York: Stores are spending lots of time and money trying out new, fancy technologies like touchscreen mirrors in changing rooms and robo-assistants out in the racks to get consumers to buy more.

Shoppers couldn’t care less.

Lowe’s Cos., the home improvement store, has a “Holoroom” that lets customers design spaces with virtual reality goggles. Nordstrom Inc. has a chatbot, an automated substitute for a human store assistant, meant to provide shoppers (both online and in-store) with gift ideas during the holidays. Rebecca Minkoff Llc, the women’s clothing retailer, has futuristic walls and mirrors that you can interact with—all in a bid to facilitate the shopping experience.

All novel approaches, sure, but most of aren’t catching on, according to a study by mobile commerce and analytics firm GPShopper and market researcher YouGov. For example, just 18% of the more than 1,000 consumers polled think smart mirrors will improve their shopping experience.

At home, virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home aren’t exactly revolutionizing shopping either. Only 21% said their technology makes the buying process better from the house.

There’s a disconnect between stores and shoppers over tech. Maya Mikhailov, a co-founder of GPShopper, works on commerce tools for stores including Crate & Barrel, Lane Bryant Inc., and Foot Locker Inc. She explained that, while retailers fawn over the latest glitzy gadget, hoping it’ll catch on as the next big thing, people just want to buy stuff as quickly and easily as possible.

“They may be very excited,” Mikhailov said of stores, “but consumers aren’t necessarily as eager as they are.”

In many cases, shoppers don’t even know that the tech exists. Most are familiar with virtual reality, but few know about things like augmented reality–the modification of a real-world environment through a digital device–such as IKEA’s technology that lets you preview furniture in your home. And few know anything about so-called “smart shelves” that can track where items are, automate pricing, and alert shoppers to their locations. Grocery store Kroger Co. began testing a version of these in 2015, and shops have experimented with such shelves since the early 2000s.

Mikhailov singled out the failure of chatbots, which many online shops now use, because the technology of parsing and learning natural language (as in chatting) isn’t quite there yet. Asos Plc, an online clothing retailer, ran into this problem in spectacular fashion last year when its customer service robo-answers became a punchline. Consumers messed with the bot on its Facebook page after it spouted utterly intelligible comments.

“This is the worst customer service algorithm I have ever seen,” a customer named Adam wrote in frustration on the company’s Facebook page. Unable to compute, it seems, the Asos chatbot responded as if “algorithm” was an item he purchased. “Hey Adam! I’d love to help you out with this—could you please send me a private message with your order number, date of birth, and email address? Once I have this I can then get on the case for you.” (Asos didn’t immediately return a request for comment on whether the bots have been upgraded.)

Everyone has had an experience with the overzealous store assistant who needs to be shooed away while you mull which jeans to buy. It seems consumers want to be left alone when it comes to non-humans and fancy shopping gadgets, too. The one thing they actually do want? Self-checkout. More than 50% say it would help them shop in stores, too. Memo to retailers: Just leave us alone. Bloomberg

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