Consulting group A.T. Kearney recently published its 2019 Consumer Retail Technology Survey, finding that most retailers are lagging when it comes to meeting consumer expectations for technology.The study placed its focus on five “crucial” technologies:
• Augmented Reality (AR) – combining interactive digital elements into the physical environment
• Mobile Point of Sale – using mobile devices to check out
• Cashierless Checkout – passive tracking of all customer purchases and automatic charging
• Interactive Screens – allow shoppers to scan products for more info
• 3D Printing – on demand creation of physical products

The conclusions of the study don’t appear to be breaking new ground, unfortunately. Are consumer expectations grounded in any sort of reality, or is it just what the average person has run across in social media? I’m also not clear how 3D printing made the list of “crucial” technologies. It’s not like you’re going to go to the store to get a peach, blouse or vacuum cleaner printed while you wait, and the customer benefit isn’t obvious.

Technologies Reviewed

Augmented Reality probably got its biggest boost from Pokemon Go a few years ago. I would run into (literally) folks at the local outdoor mall chasing virtual monsters. Video games have expanded the reach, but it’s far from ready for prime time. While there are some undeniable benefits to shopping (point out what I’m looking for in-store), a positive ROI will be harder to find than the pickled okra.

Mobile Point of Sale is gaining some popularity; Sam’s Club has had something called Scan & Go for a couple of years and it works great there. This is one that makes a lot of sense for many shoppers. Stores like Sam’s that poke around your cart before you walk out are more natural candidates for it though – other stores are likely to see an uptick in shrink, or in disgruntled shoppers who feel like they are being falsely accused.

Cashierless Checkout – made famous by the Amazon Go stores is an interesting idea, and it gets lots of press. But the back end for one of those requires massive video processing and inventory management systems, which are more manual than anyone wants to admit. It’s also a very expensive way to reduce the “I hate waiting to check out” complaint from shoppers. Also, see note above re: shrink.

The Interactive Screens reference is a bit nebulous. Does this refer to mobile screens or store-mounted screens with scanning capability? Aren’t we all using our Amazon app to get pricing comparison and product info already?

Captain Obvious Called…

The study goes on to state that 58 percent of consumers expect retail technology to impact their specialty stores choices in the future. That sounds like something out of a horoscope: a broad prediction that will seem obvious in retrospect. Clearly technology will impact our shopping choices – but will it be a positive or negative impact? More important, will that impact be the result of technology solving a real need, e.g., checkout wait times? Some of the best technological advances aren’t obvious to shoppers, Kroger’s QueVision is one example.

This is followed up with the statement that “Specialty consumers value experience, while big box consumers value convenience.” And vegetarians avoid meat. Apologies for the snark, but this is not news.

Freedom of Choice Still Rules

Finally, we learn that consumers want to save time “only on certain activities” in store. What shoppers really want is choice: choice in products, and choice in how they spend their time shopping. They don’t want to stand in line or have to search for what they want. But they may want to tarry at the cheese island or the wine department to see what’s new and enticing.

These are the things that technology should be providing: options for shoppers to decide how they want to shop. Technology should also provide a return on investment for the retailer, by reducing the cost of labor or other expenses, or driving incremental sales.

Just because consumers have heard of a technology, that doesn’t make it the right decision for a retailer to put resources against it. One would expect that fiscal prudence requires more diligence than a high Q score before an investment is made. On the other hand, testing those which offer real solutions in a fast-fail manner makes a lot of sense.

To its credit, ATK’s final section of what retailers should be doing makes a lot of sense. But more than a few folks could have developed that list without the study or its findings, including the chart showing which areas consumers want technology to improve.

Technology can add tremendous value for both the shopper and the retailer. But asking consumers what tech stores should be focused on is like asking a 10-year-old how to get to Mars. The basics still apply: start with the problem, see if there is suitable tech, and test. Learn, repeat as needed, and deploy.