Is keeping up with consumer acceptance of automation worth the challenges it brings?
Amelia Powell of USA Technologies asserts the importance of automation, flanked at left by Jeff Bender of Diebold Nixdorf, Joe Ziemer of Betterment and Matt Minhoff of Meredith Corp.
As consumers become more comfortable with automation, retailers who fail to provide the conveniences that automation offers will not meet customer expectations. Hence, many retailers are attending the CES show this week at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas to see what's new in consumer electronics.
A panel of experts with different retail perspectives got down to business during a session Tuesday, called, "Never talk to a human again."
"Creating a great consumer experience is now more important than ever," said panel moderator Matt Minhoff, chief digital officer at Meredith Corp., a media company.
Integrating the frictionless experience
Jeff Bender, vice president of Diebold Nixdorf, a leader in connected commerce, cited voice solutions as one of the current agents of change, driven by consumer technology innovations such as Amazon Echo and Google Home.
"How do we integrate that same frictionless experience that customers expect?" Bender asked.
Fortunately, as automation technology advances, retailers have more opportunities to meet customer expectations.
Amelia Powell, senior director of marketing and strategic partnerships at USA Technologies, a provider of cashless transactions for self-serve retail markets, said her company has expanded beyond providing cashless capability and can now give its customers more data on consumer buying habits. The broader scope is thanks to USA Technologies' acquisition of Cantaloupe Systems Inc., a provider of cloud and mobile solutions for micro markets and vending machines.
"We have the power to deliver information at the point of sale that wasn't available before," she said.
She said information on customer buying habits can enable retailers to create loyalty offers and improve customer engagement.
"Certainly, artificial intelligence is emerging quickly and evolving," she said.
Bender agreed that retailers need to have a suite of analytics to be in a position to serve today's "connected" consumer. These technologies make it possible for retailers to know more about their customers' online and financial activities, but only some are making progress in acquiring this level of customer knowledge.
Consumers are ready
Asked if retailers need to take special measures to encourage consumers to use technology, Powell, whose company began offering cashless payment capability for vending machines in 2000, said the company's extensive database indicates that consumers are comfortable with the technology. She said the challenge for retailers is to make retail interactions as frictionless as possible with today's technology.
Consumer comfort with self-service banking was also noted by panelist Joe Ziemer, vice president of communications and policy at Betterment, a financial services company. Ziemer said the trend is especially helpful to financial institutions in light of the fact that consumers are more comfortable with technology than with financial services, according to an Edelman Trust survey.
Ziemer also noted that retailers are finding that they can add revenue by offering automated banking services.
Automation has other benefits
As consumers become more comfortable with automation, retailers are often finding it is more economical than having employees handle certain functions.
Powell offered the example of Minute Key kiosks, which produce keys faster than employees. She said Home Depot used to assign an employee to this task, which now takes a kiosk two minutes. This allows the company to make better use of employee labor.
"You'll see additional opportunities to grow in the digital space as far as point of sale," she said.
While some people think automation removes human interaction at retail, Bender pointed out that bank customers are actually more likely to switch banks as a result of regular interaction with bank personnel.
Is cash dead?
As consumers increasingly move to cashless transactions, the question naturally came up: will ATMs become obsolete?
Bender, whose company makes ATMs, said he sees cash playing a role for at least the next 10 to 15 years.
"What will grow much faster is our capability around digital payments," he said.
One issue that retailers need to address when considering automation, however, is information security, as demonstrated by several well-publicized hacks in recent years.
Bender said his company is exploring biometric solutions to verify customers' identities, adding that biometric identification cannot be changed.
Powell believes mobile wallets, despite public suspicion, are actually very secure, especially those that use biometric verification.
Ziemer said companies should consider restricting access of customer information to third parties.
Challenges are to be expected as automation expands, but the panel agreed that one of the bigger challenge retailers face is keeping up with consumer expectations.
Elliot Maras Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.