Customers prefer better-trained store staff than robots

7th September 2018
Enaie Azambuja

Research among 1,000 UK customers by Hughes shows that despite all the headlines about cute robots such as Softbank’s Pepper, the technology is not in fact high on the list of expectations. Only four percent of customers expect to see such technology in stores within 12 months and of those who have used or experienced it, almost seven-in-ten (69%) said it had been a below-par experience.

By Hughes Europe

Pepper is an in-store robot that has gained plenty of headlines with its ability to chat and interact with customers, give directions and answer questions.

But while some US store chains try out less glamorous customer-facing robots to answer queries and locate products, for the most part the technology excels at monitoring and handling stock, such as the autonomous shelf-scanners deployed by Walmart in 50 US stores.

European fashion chain Zara, meanwhile, is deploying robots to eliminate delays for customers in click-and-collect, picking up orders from stock rooms and placing them in boxes ready for customers to retrieve.

Positive attitudes to virtual assistants

While the public may currently have limited enthusiasm for robots, when it comes to virtual assistants, attitudes are more positive and in closer alignment with those of store operators.

Almost half (48%) of customers surveyed felt their experience of in-store virtual assistants had been good and more than a third (35%) expected to see the applications on retail premises in some form within 12 months. Of the 100 UK retailers surveyed for the same research, 43% said they were looking into the implementation of virtual assistants within a year.

The fact that many customers already have daily experience of virtual assistants such as Siri, Google Home and Amazon Alexa, will undoubtedly encourage them to use such applications when they are available in-store, perhaps integrated with kiosk technology to provide a new, automated level of service.

Customers still believe in the value of well-trained staff

What the research also reveals is that although customers are increasingly at home with automated, voice-activated assistants, the overwhelming majority still want human interaction.

Some 91% said they still saw the relevance of human store assistants to their current shopping experiences, even if in future they can see that technology will take over many customer-facing functions.

The reason for believing in the human element may be down to the quality of experience created by well-trained and committed store assistants.

More than half of the respondents (55%) felt that store assistants have good or excellent knowledge and add value to the shopping experience. Unfortunately, that means the remaining 45% believe the quality of service delivered by store assistants can be improved.

Using technology for training is a smart move

The lesson of this may be that in-store virtual assistance and robot technologies are not yet sufficiently advanced that they can replace human assistants and as a result, retailers need to invest in training their staff to ensure they meet the full range of current customer expectations.

It is reassuring to see in the research that surprisingly large percentages of retailers are investing, or planning to invest in advanced training technologies. Augmented reality training, for example, which superimposes computer-generated images on real-world locations, is the target for investment among 78% of retailers.

Substantially more than two-thirds of retailers said they intend putting resources into staff learning platforms whether in-store or online, and into the provision of training apps for use with smart devices.

This promises an exciting future for in-store retail, as better trained staff provide a superior level of service to customers who also want the option of using advanced applications such as virtual assistants.

It is a combination that should give competitive advantage if the technologies are supported by comparable investment in the connectivity capable of ensuring constant availability.

For a distributed retailer with hundreds or even thousands of sites, relying on pre-existing networks to cope with the bandwidth-demands of new customer-facing or staff training technologies opens up a new level of risk.

Retailers can rightly see the qualitative gains to be had from these technologies, which will encourage greater footfall, but they will not be able to obtain them without well-managed, robust networks that can handle the change in scale and facilitate further innovation.

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