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Beware, retail brands: Amazon Fresh's till-less store may be the future of consumer experience

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There couldn't have been a better time for Amazon to open its till-less store in London.

Think about it: we're all stuck at home for at least a few more months, having to comply with social-distancing rules and probably quite bored during the weekends. And what does Amazon do? It opens a store with no human personnel, completely automated, and which is certain to give a few lucky ones in London some lovely ten minutes in the future.

Well, not sure if I'd define them lucky. Apparently there is a huge queue to even get into the store in the first place. As much as I'm curious to see the future of retail, I don't think I will be going there very soon.

But I have personally been incredibly exciting from the very moment Amazon announced its first Fresh store in Seattle. As someone who spent more time than he wished to working in retail (who hasn't?), I know for a fact that the sector needs a revolution. And the Amazon Fresh stores may just be it.

A frictionless customer experience

It's not that we hate other humans, but let's just say we can't really be too much around each other right now. At a time when customers are looking for frictionless, speedy and safe customer experiences, Amazon Fresh provides what I believe is a glimpse into the future of retail.

Of course we've seen a huge shift from in-store to online purchases, and I'd be surprised of the opposite. But despite years of progress in online shopping, there were some things that would still just work better in store. Trying on a shirt, for example, or seeing a toy in our kid's hands before actually buying it.

Just last month my partner ordered some Pokémons over the Internet believing they'd be at least the size of her hand. Spoiler: they were probably as tall as her pinky.

But let's face it: who goes into a retail store 'for the experience'? Who is it that actually enjoys the long queues, scrambling for a size, looking for a toy that – guaranteed – is lost somewhere in the stockroom? Certainly not me – and most likely, not even most of the poor shop assistants on the floor.

The Amazon Fresh stores promise to deliver a frictionless experience the moment we need it the most, and most importantly, when we didn't even know we needed it.

Sure, some stores around the world have been entirely built around the concept of physical experience, and those are amazing. But we haven't seen enough of those in the past years – and retail has now become so old it's starting to rot away.

A paradise for data collection

Additionally, being the Amazon Fresh system entirely automated, it possesses mechanisms to gather more accurate data about customer behaviour, with the potential to evolve in-store experiences beyond imaginable.

We can expect Amazon to start shaping the online shopping experience on its website the more data it gathers about customer behaviour across the world. Which means other retailers and brands aiming to follow Amazon's lead may find themselves in the position to do just the same thing.

This is what Naji El-Arifi, Head of Innovation at Wunderman Thompson Commerce, said on the topic:

"If retailers can meet consumers’ desire for ease, speed and convenience they will have something on their hands that is indispensable: customer satisfaction. It is rare for a technology to hit all three, usually an idea or a service is good at one of them and if it does that one thing really well it will succeed. However, Amazon Go is one of those rare moments that achieves all three in the equation, and it can serve as the natural next step for quick instore experiences when it comes to grocery shopping in the UK. This now frictionless experience that Amazon Fresh can provide gives the eCommerce marketplace a platform to have a physical presence and expand even further into the UK market."

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Image credit: Rob McDonald for McCann London and Microsoft

The future of retail brands?

Clearly we are a long way ahead of complete and total automation, and the more cynical among you will already dread the day in which all of those shop assistant roles will become obsolete. That is not going to happen before generations. But even if it does, the fault there isn't certainly Amazon's; retail has seen this coming for a very long time.

At least in the realm of groceries, which is what Amazon Fresh is currently tackling, UK retailers have had time to prepare and some have indeed developed several automated systems to use in store. Sainsbury's is an obvious one, with its Smartshop app connected to a customer's Nectar card, but even more names (such as Tesco) pop to mind as well.

However, the rest of retail is still lagging behind. Still clinging to old standards and experiences, too attached to what seems to be working now to choose to dare and risk for the near future.

"Customers will be hard-pressed to find a more convenient small basket shopping experience, especially during a period where we are all conscious of what we touch and cleanliness," Naji continues. "Nearly half (48%) of shoppers confessed to being scared about returning to the high street in July, with this number remaining a significant 24% in September so the idea of a store that minimises touch and reduces interaction with other people is a genuine selling point post-Covid-19. And while weathering the storm caused by Covid-19 has presented many challenges for retailers – it has forced digital laggards to innovate and transform operations. In fact, our research found that 75% of consumers wished that all retailers and brands offered the same level of service as Amazon."

Soon enough, retail brands and stores will have to provide way more complex experiences to attract customers in. And as clichéd as it sounds, these brands will have to adapt or die, by coming up with new solutions before their competition – or by shutting down stores altogether, losing revenue as well as workforce. It is what happened to HMV way before the pandemic started. And it is what put Debenhams and others in a difficult position when Covid hit.

The retail sector has long lacked some foresight to put customers before profit, aiming to build a community around their stores rather than just a point of sale.

Perhaps, as more Amazon Go stores start popping up across London, it will be time to reinvent retail at last.

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